This review is part of The Moviegoer's coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
Ricky Gervais is my favorite comedian and entertainer, so I look forward immensely to all his projects. His work on television, radio, and film as a whole has been very impressive, and he has certainly made his presence in the industry felt. However, his tour-de-force performance came over a decade ago as David Brent in BBC's The Office, and since then, Gervais has failed to reach that level of critical and commercial success. In Special Correspondents, Gervais takes full control as he directs, produces, writes, and stars in this journalistic comedy. While the film has some great moments, lack of execution and a sloppy conclusion turn this promising feature into another mediocre outing from one of this generation's finest comedic talents.
The film follows radio journalist Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) and sound technician Ian Finch (Gervais), who are told to cover a rebel uprising in Ecuador. After Finch mistakenly disposes of their tickets and passports, and a hold on all travel into the country is placed, they hatch a plan to cover the uprising in an apartment above a New York City restaurant. The situation soon unravels, as they then fake their own kidnapping when American officials want them to report to the American embassy in Ecuador. They are aided in this wild, largely irrational journey by Domingo (Raul Castello) and Brigida (America Ferrera), who own the Spanish restaurant at which they are hiding.
While Gervais and Bana play the roles of meek, underachieving technician and egotistical "dick", respectively, to a tee, the supporting characters are one-dimensional. Luis and America are left to play two Spanish speakers who are portrayed as dumb and ignorant. Other Spanish-speaking characters, such as those in Ecuador, are also portrayed in a very stereotypical manner. A good writer can utilize stereotypes effectively, as Gervais has done so in his satires of British culture and in his stand-up routines. However, his attempts here fall flat. The true star of the film is Vera Farmiga, who plays the opportunistic wife of Finch, capitalizing on his disappearance to raise money, do interviews, and become a #1 selling artist on iTunes.
The film disappoints aesthetically as well. Rather than capturing the hustle and bustle of the streets of New York City, the film settles for an artificial environment. This likely stems from the fact that the film was shot not in NYC, but rather in Toronto. Now, many films and shows that are set-in New York City often film elsewhere, due to the high costs of filming in the Big Apple. However, other works such as the show Suits, set in New York but also shot in Toronto, provide an authentic environment nonetheless. In the case of Special Correspondents, Gervais and co. egregiously fail to highlight New York City. In a film that aimed to be topical, tapping into the look and culture of the world's most diverse city would have led to a more refined product. The portrayal of Ecuador was equally as half-assed, made to resemble a collection of random trees, dirt, and shacks. At the discussion after the film premiere, America Ferrera jokingly states that the film's version of Ecuador actually doesn't look anything like Ecuador. Gervais, in response, jokes that he simply doesn't care, citing the artificial Ecuador's close proximity to his hotel as a benefit. Unfortunately, if Gervais did care just a tad more, he might have delivered an increasingly authentic experience for moviegoers to enjoy.
Despite the film's shortcomings, it does make you laugh. The chemistry between the cast is electric, and the film is overall entertaining, aided in part by its brisk running time of 100 minutes. Gervais throughout his career has been best at producing laughs through awkward, dry, and often cringe-inducing British humor. In one memorable scene, Gervais is in peak form as he and Bana re-enact an Isis-esque hostage video. Awkward? Check. Inappropriate? Check. Funny? Check.
Likely to be derided by critics, the film will nonetheless gain a large viewership through Netflix's streaming services. In August, Gervais will reprise his role as David Brent in Life on the Road, detailing David Brent's musical ambitions fifteen years later after the BBC mockumentary. For someone who has previously proclaimed he does not want to be known as David Brent for his entire career, this certainly does not bode well.
Special Correspondents releases on Netflix on Friday, April 29th.