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Television

Review: This just in: Ricky Gervais’ ‘Special Correspondents’ isn’t much of a story

Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais

Eric Bana and Ricky Gervais are radio journalists caught up in a lie in Gervais’ Netflix film “Special Correspondents.”

(Kerry Hayes / Netflix)

Ricky Gervais has written, directed and costarred in “Special Correspondents,” a movie for Netflix about a radio journalist (Eric Bana) and his engineer (Gervais) faking broadcasts from a war zone they have not actually traveled to. Based on the 2009 French comedy “Envoyés très spéciaux,” it’s a minor work, like a Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle movie in the old Universal Pictures days, if not quite as charming.

If it’s actually disappointing, rather than merely just OK, it’s that one (still) expects more from the co-creator of “The Office” -- one of the century’s most influential series, which is getting a film sequel this year with Gervais’ “David Brent: Life on the Road” -- and from an able cast that also includes Kelly Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, America Ferrera and Kevin Pollak.

Gervais plays Ian, a sound engineer at a New York local news radio station; it is another of his pitiful yet not untalented clowns, ceaselessly belittled by his wife, Eleanor (Farmiga), and by on-air correspondent Frank (Bana), an ego with broad shoulders and poetical disregard for the facts whom Ian puppyishly admires. When Frank and Ian are improbably assigned to cover a “rebel coup” in Ecuador, comic bungling keeps them in the country, elaborately fabricating field reports from just across the street from the studio.

Similar false reports are the stuff of Evelyn Waugh’s comic newspaper novel “Scoop.” And it’s true that some of what seems far-fetched here does have nonfictional analogues -- Stephen Glass, once of the New Republic, and Jayson Blair, late of the New York Times, wrote stories datelined from places they had not actually gone to, and invented quotes from people with whom they did not speak; and they got away with it much longer than they should have, given the august reputations of their respective employers.

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Much of what will happen in and before the end is quickly obvious from the beginning, and much else is obvious before too much longer. Unlike “The Office” or “Extras” (which Gervais wrote, significantly or not, with Stephen Merchant), “Special Correspondents” is not set in any sort of world in which people or organizations behave as they do in life, but only as they do in movies.

Some actions are exaggerated for what are clearly satirical purposes -- you could make a case that this is a film about people for whom human tragedy is just a step to personal advancement, or (briefly) about how fiction becomes truth in the public sphere -- but the satire is weak and inconsistently applied. This isn’t “Wag the Dog.” And Gervais in any case is more concerned with Ian’s sentimental progress and transformation from self-lacerating sad sack to romantic action hero than with making points about media and society.

So much the worse then, that apart from Ferrara and Raúl Castillo as the couple above whose restaurant Ian and Frank hide out, none of the actors have any real chemistry with one another. (Ian and his wife seem barely acquainted.) Macdonald’s junior correspondent Claire is clearly meant to be Ian’s inevitable Ms. Right -- they’re similarly short, they both like video games, they’re sweet as heck -- but they spend most of the film apart; their pairing is more formal than felt.

The film is not wholly without interest -- there are some funny scenes -- and I imagine “Special Correspondents” will get some traction on Netflix, an enabler of sometimes middling projects from major names alongside its finer products. But Francis the Mule and the Kettles have brought a lot of people joy in their time without making any great claim on their critical faculties, and it’s your hour and change to spend.

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Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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