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A Review of "Special Correspondents" (2016)

You know what's great for time-stressed bloggers like me who want to present some semblance of relevancy but who can't afford to go out to the theater or take time away from young children?  Netflix.  Naturally.  I've been dying for the chance to review one of their original releases within the same week it came out, but for one reason or another, I kept missing that opportunity.

So I'm pleased to present a review of Special Correspondents, the new comedy from writer/director Ricky Gervais!  It's about as current on media events as I can ever get, and damn if I'm not psyched to tell you all about it!


....is what I would be saying if this was a more exciting movie.

The main problem with Special Correspondents is that it's a Netflix Original.  This means that it's going to get a lot of advertising space on their website and consequently a ton of people are going to be expecting a five-star tentpole production.  That's not what this is at all.  Special Correspondents is simply an okay comedy that works well when you catch it on a lazy Sunday afternoon while you're eating leftover takeout and checking your email.

Netflix has no way of telling you that, though.  They don't run ads that say, "It's okay.  I mean, check it out sometime when you just want something on in the background.  But you don't have to schedule your life around it.  Why would you, anyway?  You have Netflix for a reason.  But, yeah, it's okay."

So I'm a bit at a loss of what tone to strike here.  I want to both condemn it for being kind of a ho-hum nothing movie, but I want to defend it from the stream of vitriol I expect is already in progress.  (Mid-thirties on Metacritic? C'mon, guys.  Be fair.  That's almost a Larry the Cable Guy rating.)

The plot revolves around two radio news reporters, Finch (Ricky Gervais) and Bonneville (Eric Bana), who are dispatched to Ecuador to cover an armed rebellion, but who instead, through various contrivances, wind up producing fake broadcasts from an apartment above a nearby restaurant.  The scheme starts as a gut reaction to avoid getting fired, and then quickly escalates to an international incident when they pretend to be kidnapped by the rebels.

Here's the good news.  Ricky Gervais is as charming and affable as he normally is - which is another way of saying that if you like him, you'll like him, and if you hate him, well, this won't change your mind.  He's a great performer and nails all the movie's best comedic moments.  Much of the supporting cast is good, too.  America Ferrera is very funny and Vera Farmiga hits just the right balance of "desperate" and "punchable."  The plot is inherently fun - fraud movies usually are - and there's enough high points and energy to make it worth your time.

As for the bad news, I'll mention three points.  First up: Eric Bana.  Despite putting in a mostly good performance, he never hits the right balance between "charismatic" and "douchebag" that a scoundrel really needs.  He should be a fun-loving, opportunistic leech who you love to hate and hate to love.  Instead, he's typically irascible and pouty and naysays all the forward-moving action.

This is especially a problem when it comes down to the two of them coming up with the scheme in the first place.  When it starts, Gervais says that they should simply go back to their boss and admit that they inadvertently threw out their passports and airplane tickets to Ecuador, and Bana is the one who refuses to do that out of fear of getting fired.  But then he turns around and whines about the cockamamie scheme that Gervais comes up with.  If you're going to do that, why do we care what you think?  You can't be a stick-in-the-mud about both ends of it.  (Not in a movie, anyway.  In real life you can do whatever you want, but I'm normally not signing up to watch random people be indecisive for 90 minutes.)  Bana should be the guy who jumps at the opportunity for fraud.  He should be a calm, smirking asshole who says, "What, we lost our passports?  Ah, hell with it.  Let's just record a fake broadcast over there."

This is a direct cause of my second big gripe, which is that too much of the movie is just plain not funny.  The joke-to-minute ratio is way too low and a large part of that is because so much time is spent on Bana simply being angry.  A guy fretting about his crappy situation is not a joke - the joke is when he tries to fix things and it gets worse.  The sad thing is, I know that Bana can be a terrific comedic actor.  I've seen him be really funny before.  I don't think he isn't trying - I think he just doesn't have a lot of material to work with.

My last complaint is a common thread in my reviews of comedies: it never gets as tough as it should.  There's some amazing potential for dark comedy when Vera Farmiga gets to step into the limelight as Finch's opportunistic wife - within minutes of being notified about her husband's (fake) kidnapping, she writes a sappy yay-for-America song about heroes and organizes a successful fundraising campaign on his behalf.  This thread could be so much more caustic and biting if they really wanted to get in some good digs at slacktivism and shallow patriotism.  Instead, it dances with some beautifully morbid ideas for about five minutes and then leaves them by the wayside.

In the end, I'm left wishing they would take a second pass at this one.  If they got to the fake kidnapping way faster and dwelled more on Farmiga's character, you'd have this terrific satire about the volatility and superficiality of a 24-hour news environment. Instead, most of it just kinda feels like a big shrug.

Oh, well.  At least it's better than The Interview.  You guys remember when that was briefly considered satire?  I'm glad that's over with.