‘Netflix will see the return of the auteur,’ Ricky Gervais declared at a Netflix press event earlier this month, ‘because you will make the movie that you wanted.’ The British comedian has demonstrably proven that he’s kept off the beaten path for the duration of his career so far, instead making his claim to success with more and more curious projects after another. When the studios did come calling for a big-budget comedy, he wrote The Invention of Lying; a flawed, but thoroughly intelligent alternative to lowest-common-denominator comedies, before making Cemetery Junction, a near-autobiographical, deeply personal drama. More British sitcoms followed in the form of Life’s Too Short and Derek, both misunderstood yet hugely funny (and in the latter’s case, moving) all the same. So a partnership between himself and Netflix feels like the perfect next step: like he said, Special Correspondents reflects making ‘the movie that you wanted.’ But this time around, the movie Gervais wanted must have been a narratively troubled, borderline-unfunny farce – because that’s exactly what he made.
New York City: Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) is a hotshot at a local radio station, known for his leathery on-air voice and compelling imagination, and Ian Finch (Gervais) is his introverted techie friend with a fondness for video games. When they’re sent on a war report to Ecuador, only to realise they’ve lost their passports, cash, and plane tickets when they arrive at the airport, they quickly hatch a plan to save face and (technically) do the job; by holing up in an attic and sending out fake reports back to their radio station, using Frank’s convincing smooth-talk and Ian’s ingenious soundscape of jungle noises and rifle shots. But how long can they keep this up before someone finds out?
The central idea of Special Correspondents is a superb one, pregnant with comic possibilities – but from almost the word ‘go’, the narrative is stalled in favour of meandering early scenes, that accomplish nothing that couldn’t be done while the premise we’ve been promised from the trailer just, purely and simply, gets on with it. We’re sold a movie that sees Gervais and Bana already having teamed up as what we assume to be long-established partners in crime, their fake radio reports an everyday way of life for them, only to find themselves in Ecuador when they suspect someone’s onto their scent. This isn’t how the film itself unfolds at all, which is a downright shame for a number of reasons. Firstly, we would have been thrust immediately into the story, freeing it up to lead us down more exciting and inventive routes than what we do get. Secondly, it would make these characters far more interesting; Ian is a clichéd introvert and Bonneville is a similarly sketched arrogant hunk, but what if we were introduced to them as a double-act with a dubious morality? It’s not for a review to imagine how a film should play, only to look at the film we actually get – but when said film’s trailer trailer sells us something that seems far better than the movie itself, a little daydreaming can be allowed.
Regardless, the prospect of their radio-report hustle is a juicy one – except the hustle is barely registered, either. What instead unfolds are a handful of far less exciting storylines, one involving the callous actions of Ian’s evil wife Eleanor (an ill-fitting Vera Farmiga), with it all morphing into a last-minute detour to actual Ecuador. By this time, it’s too late, and far too little.
So what is good about Special Correspondents, then? It’s certainly not the writing, nor the direction – the former of which is subpar by Gervais’ standards, the latter a victim of the strangely cheap-looking aesthetic most of Netflix’s originals bear – and it’s not even the performances. Both Bana and Gervais do acceptably fine work (there are, thankfully, a string of relatively giggle-worthy exchanges between them at all times), but ultimately, it’s not what will make you hit ‘play’. No, Special Correspondents is a shadow of something far greater, but it’s an easy watch, the kind of background noise you’d have on while you doze off on the sofa. Therefore, it’s ideal for Netflix – but not for the big screen. It’s a worryingly low standard that’s threatening to creep in, such that a new work from a distinctly great talent such as Gervais can turn out to be of such lowered quality. Is it Gervais’ fault? Is it Netflix’s? Perhaps both; clearly, their development model is one that’s yet to be perfected. Perhaps a regular studio is exactly what he needs, and thank god he has one for David Brent: Life on the Road, also out this year. As for the Return of the Auteur, it’s clearly a long way off.
Special Correspondents is available to stream on Netflix right now.