Hatewatch #1: Special Correspondents (The continuing descent of Ricky Gervais)
In this new regular feature, I am travailing through the world of bad films to find hidden gems, terrible disappointments, and the worst of the worst. Films are rated on a scale of: ‘Good’, ‘Not Bad’, ‘So Bad It’s Good’, ‘Bad’, ‘Boring’, and ‘THE FUCKING WORST’.
When Ricky Gervais first broke through into the mainstream with the groundbreaking comedy The Office, he reached a level of success very few ever do. Along with writing partner Stephen Merchant, Gervais became known as the creator of one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time, a hilarious and painfully awkward mockumentary that was hailed by critics, beloved by audiences, and worshipped by awards ceremonies. The Office swept the British Comedy Awards (bagging Gervais the first of many acting awards) and shocked the world by becoming the first ever British comedy to win a Golden Globe. There really hasn’t been a British comedy like it before or since. How could Gervais possibly live up to the hype after such amazing early success?
Somehow he did it with Extras, another brilliantly funny sitcom. Based on his new found fame, Gervais played Andy Millman, an irritable actor desperate for respect. Roping in many of his celebrity friends for the first time, Extras worked because it felt fresh, giving celebrities (including big stars like Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, and Barry from Eastenders) a chance to take the piss out of themselves in ways previously unseen. Gervais and Merchant were unstoppable; once again beloved by critics and audiences, Extras gained the writing team even more awards to add to their collection.
And then it all went wrong.
Away from the wonderful The Ricky Gervais Show and An Idiot Abroad (largely beloved due to Karl Pilkington, the world’s funniest man), Gervais and Merchant released Life’s Too Short, a mixture of The Office’s mockumentary format and Extras’ relentless celebrity bashing. Following the life of actor Warwick Davis, Life’s Too Short didn’t really offer much apart from dwarf jokes and celebrities showing their increasingly unfunny sides, and it showed. Not only was Life’s Too Short critically slaughtered (The Guardian described it as “strikingly lazy stuff”), but fans turned away from it in droves; the final episode aired to under a million viewers.
Had Gervais and Merchant lost it? Had the mockumentary format finally run its course? Was celebrity self-deprecation losing its charm? Gervais and Merchant split off from each other for the first time in their careers, veering off in different ways. Merchant went to HBO and made Hello Ladies, a hugely underrated cringe comedy that was very funny and full of heart, but failed to find an audience. It was swiftly cancelled. Gervais, meanwhile, went in a different direction. He made Derek.
A bafflingly mawkish and twee mockumentary, Derek followed a mentally handicapped retirement home worker worshipped by his friends and colleagues twice as much as Jesus Christ (something atheist Gervais should have disapproved of). Most complaints were based around the idea that Gervais’ performance mocked the disabled (it clearly didn’t, as Gervais loves Derek even more than fans of the show do), but that wasn’t the problem with Derek. The problem with Derek was that it was sentimental to a frankly alarming degree.
Long lost fathers, dying puppies, beach montages set to Coldplay; Derek had so much heart, even The Grinch would have cause for concern. The drama was occasionally effective and there were some good performances , but Derek was obnoxiously kind hearted, about as provocative and interesting as a knitted cardigan. It was so unfunny, in fact, it made many question if Merchant was the comedy brains all along, an idea backed up by Gervais’ solo forays into Hollywood.
After bit parts in a few comedies and a starring role in the forgettable Ghost Town, Gervais made his directing debut with The Invention of Lying (which he also wrote), playing a man who begins to lie in a world where everyone speaks the truth all the time.
It was abysmal.
Lacking a single funny moment, The Invention of Lying got lost in Ricky’s own agendas, indulging in some blatant antitheism which could have been controversial if it wasn’t so toothless. It was seven years before Gervais directed a film again, which brings us to my first ever Hatewatch, Special Correspondents.
Special Correspondents stars Gervais and Eric Bana as two radio journalists who, after ‘comically’ missing their flights, have to fake live transmissions from the middle of a war zone. Alongside the two leads, the cast includes Vera Farmiga as Gervais’ awful shrew wife and Kelly MacDonald as a thankless love interest. It’s fair to say the film is not the comeback Ricky Gervais fans hoped for.
For someone who broke new ground and pioneered the mockumentary format in his debut project, Special Correspondents is worryingly bland and safe. The Invention of Lying was a mess but at least it had something to say. Special Correspondents could have questioned the ethics of journalism or the media’s influence on the war on terror; instead, it settles for a vague “everybody wants to be famous” message as weak as a David Brent stand-up routine.
As sad sack Marvel enthusiast (he likes the most popular franchise in the world, what a loser!!!) and sound engineer Ian Finch, Gervais gives a surprisingly poor performance. Ricky isn’t the greatest actor but he’s a capable comedy performer and surprisingly fine dramatic actor. In Special Correspondents, he isn’t much good at either. Ian Finch isn’t a funny character. He’s so thoroughly miserable you want him put out of his misery. Meanwhile, his big dramatic moments are hampered by atrociously on-the-nose dialogue; what actor could make a line like “I’ve got a shitty wife, although I don’t really care; I can see her for what she really is” sound convincing?
Eric Bana fares a little better as the arrogant rock star journalist who captivates audiences across New York with his poetic ramblings, but he still isn’t very funny, despite his suitably dickish performance. The same can be said for Vera Farmiga’s evil bitch, who barely raises a chuckle when performing a terribly overwrought charity single (for which she pockets all the money). The sole laughs in the film are provided by America Ferrara and Raúl Castillo as a charming Spanish couple who help the hapless journalists hide.
It doesn’t take long to work out how the plot of Special Correspondents will go down. Finch throws away the tickets, the two hide out in New York faking reports, things inevitably go wrong leading to wacky shenanigans and the two men having to go to Ecuador to tidy things up. I haven’t seen the French film Gervais based Special Correspondents on, but if its plot is anywhere near as predictable as this, Gervais should have considered a dramatic rewrite. Other than the closing ten minutes, where things rapidly become more insane and therefore somewhat exciting, Special Correspondents hits every expected character and story beat. This isn’t necessarily a problem in comedy if the material is sharp, but when there are so few jokes, you need to go as off-the-wall as possible.
The sad thing is, there are glimpses of a better film. Gervais’ tentative romance with fellow journalist Kelly MacDonald isn’t believable, but it’s sweet nonetheless. MacDonald has been saddled with endless weak roles, but she’s still a charming screen presence . Perhaps the characters are to blame for the film’s lacklustre laughs. When Finch actually stands up for himself there’s a spark and chemistry the film sorely lacks, and a few strong gags; upon being told he should be slapped to make their hostage tape more believable, he exclaims “I’m not Daniel Day fucking Lewis!”.
Since The Office, pathos and drama have always been at the heart of Ricky Gervais’ work. The reason his early sitcoms were so loved by millions was that behind the endless laughter, there was emotion and depth. Would The Office have worked without Tim and Dawn’s romance? Was Extras not about two best friends dependant on each other?
The reason Gervais’ recent efforts have been such flops is that without memorable characters and the sharp wit of writing partner Stephen Merchant, he simply isn’t funny enough to be a comedy genius anymore. Other than the madcap ending, Special Correspondents is totally predictable and lacking in energy. Even worse, it’s almost completely devoid of laughs. Fingers crossed that David Brent: Life On The Road is the big comeback Ricky Gervais needs.
Final Verdict: BAD.
NEXT TIME ON HATEWATCH: Labor Day
By Harry J. Ford
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