Ricky Gervais has yet to find another role as perfectly suited to his caustic sensibilities as “The Office” boss David Brent — or, for that matter, the impishly nasty, trash-talking persona he assumes for his Golden Globes hosting gigs. “Special Correspondents” doesn’t halt that streak, affording him a loser-makes-good part that’s as toothless as the rest of the film, about a cocky New York City news radio reporter and meek sound technician who unwittingly fake their way into the national spotlight. Written and directed by Gervais, it’s an overly long, if passable diversion whose star power should help it draw comedy-starved home viewers via Netflix, where it’ll exclusively live after its Tribeca Film Festival debut.
Based on the 2009 French comedy of the same name, “Special Correspondents” is predicated on the chemistry of its odd-couple leads — a seemingly solid plan undone by the milquetoast mildness of their bickering banter. Gervais is Ian Finch, a longtime sound man with over-the-air outfit Q365, where he aids (and fawns over the macho bluster of) bad-boy reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana), who’s never met a rule he wouldn’t gladly break in service of securing a story.
They’re a mismatched pair thrust together by their boss’ (Kevin Pollak) demand that they cover a revolutionary uprising in Ecuador (as opposed to their French predecessors’ destination, Iraq). Crisis ensues, however, when Ian accidentally throws away their passports, tickets and cash, a mistake destined to not only cost them a high-profile report, but also their jobs.
Instead of owning up to their faux pas, Ian and Frank’s solution is to broadcast phony dispatches from the war-torn country. They concoct those communiqués in the attic of the restaurant across the street from the station — thanks to the aid of goofily moronic owners Brigida (America Ferrera) and Domingo (Raúl Castillo) — and embellish them with rain-forest and gunfire audio effects for added authenticity.
Naturally, this ruse quickly spirals out of control, leading the duo to record a video in which they pretend to be rebel hostages. Their faux-deadly situation greatly concerns co-worker Claire (Kelly MacDonald), who not-so-secretly adores Ian despite his being a “40-Year-Old Virgin”-style dork who stockpiles superhero “collectibles.” It also attracts coast-to-coast media attention, thus providing Ian’s nasty wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) — who’s already cheated on him with Frank, and then outright left him — to use the men’s kidnapping as a launching-pad vehicle for her own celebrity career.
While Eleanor’s impromptu television musical tribute to her husband proves a comical act of over-the-top self-promotion, “Special Correspondents” puts scant effort into satirizing either journalistic ethics or the public’s gullibility. Gervais’ tale is primarily consumed with middle-of-the-road squabbling between its headliners, whose yin-yang chemistry never results in more than a few chuckle-worthy bon mots.
Gervais’ script mistakenly assumes that its ever-more-troublesome plot twists are alone enough to prop up the proceedings. With each new development, though, the film becomes slightly creakier, culminating with a predictably ironic late turn of events in which the duo are compelled to secretly enter Ecuador (in order to be extracted by an expectant U.S. government embassy), only to find themselves in the very sort of trouble they’d previously fictionalized.
Bana exudes serviceable cock-of-the-walk arrogance as Frank, but Gervais’ Ian is so passive, introverted and “boring” that the writer-director-star never gives himself an opportunity to really let fly with truly clever ripostes or pointed insults. Rather, he’s stuck sulking and cowering through most of his saga, with only occasional, meekly sarcastic one-liners breaking up the action’s monotony.
Ferrera earns at least as many laughs as one of the duo’s dim-witted accomplices (who, in a funny bit, wears high-heels when posing on-camera as a terrorist). And Farmiga just about steals the show as the selfish Eleanor, whose more brazen attempts to profit from her husband’s plight are almost as amusing as her head-turning, voice-dropping, smile-drooping stabs at feigning real emotion about her lame spouse.
Ian’s transformation into an adventurous go-getter is preordained from the outset, yet there’s little daring to Terry Stacey’s bright, functional cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe’s equally safe, poppy score. Just as its characters’ confined apartment hideout poses as a virtual-reality Ecuador, the film’s bland aesthetics make it a VOD-ready TV movie masquerading as a genuine feature.