I remember how many people were caught totally off guard by Ricky Gervais’s “The Invention of Lying” (2009), a film with a simple premise about a man who could lie in a world where nobody else could, when it suddenly became a vicious condemnation of religion. Gervais’s character, the liar, invented the concept of a “Man in the Sky” who would take good people to an afterlife if they followed “ten rules.” The climax hinges on Gervais’ discrediting his own creation, restoring an atheistic equilibrium to the world. I’m not trying to say that the film wasn’t funny or clever, but it wasn’t what most people were expecting.
“Special Correspondents,” Gervais’s latest directorial effort, continues this trend of taking a simple concept and using it as a springboard for moralistic grandstanding. If “The Invention of Lying” took the piss out of religion, “Special Correspondents” takes the piss out of the American charity complex, portraying it as misguided and its participants as brainless sheep more interested in being trendy than in actually trying to help other people.
A remake of the 2009 French comedy “Envoyés très spéciaux » by Frédéric Auburtin, it follows two reporters played by Eric Bana and Gervais who are assigned to cover an Ecuadorian revolution. On the way Gervais loses their tickets and passports, forcing them to hole up in a tiny apartment and create fake broadcasts of them covering the fighting. After their boss orders them to retreat to the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, Bana and Gervais panic, fake their own kidnapping, and send their boss a phony ransom video. Here’s where the cynicism comes in: Gervais’s unfaithful wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga), uses the kidnapping as an opportunity to set up a phony charity and subsequently cons a willing American public out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s shockingly mean-spirited—tearful crowds jubilantly cheer when Eleanor sings a song asking for money, people wear themed clothing in support, and Central Park hosts a massive gathering where oblivious idiots are conned.
Though visually uninspired and too long, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh all the way through “Special Correspondents.” The early sequences of them scrambling to make the false broadcasts were particularly hilarious. But I had real trouble stomaching its cruel streak. The fact that Eleanor never gets punished also rubbed me the wrong way. I would recommend it for people looking for a decent comedy, but I’d warn them to be prepared for some unexpected ugliness.