It's a sorry state of affairs, but Hollywood seems to be doing to Ricky Gervais what it did to Steve Coogan before him. Wasting him, misunderstanding him, making him looking foolish.
Their career paths have been almost identical: both cut their teeth on wildly successful comedies in the UK then went to Hollywood and starred in vehicles that simply didn't suit them. Despite some good signs (for Gervais, Ghost Town was actually great, but everything since has been different shades of garbage), both went back to the properties that best suited them (Alan Partridge and David Brent), after hopefully realising that their later British successes (The Trip and Derek) reflect where they work best.
Sadly, like Coogan's awful work on Around The World In 80 Days and Tropic Thunder and Percy bloody Jackson, Gervais seems to be pushed into square holes no matter how obviously round he is. And the latest - the insipid, nasty piece of work that is Special Correspondents - is the worst yet. Most worryingly, the agent of this misadventure also seems to have been Gervais himself, so it's not as easy as saying Hollywood just doesn't get him.
Rather than playing a gloriously self-abusing character like David Brent, Gervais plays a hang-dog idiot, subjected to fat jokes by Eric Bana's thoroughly unlikable "charmer". In both cases, the art of the steal is in making the character the butt of the joke: for Special Correspondents, the biggest mistake is assuming that also means he has to be victimised.
As an actor and a writer, Gervais is usually infinitely smarter than this sort of material. There's no doubt the idea - of two war correspondents faking stories about a war-torn country while holed up in hiding at home - is ripe for intelligent commentary, but instead we get a romp through casual stereotyping, nasty characters f*cking each other over, a god-awful, incredibly unfunny script and a tagged on romance that is as distracting as it is inauthentic.
Worryingly, Gervais says he's immune to criticism now:
"It doesn't bother me, I don't care. If you get your own way and it turns out the way you wanted it to then you're bulletproof; I don't care what happens to it. I've made my thing and I'm moving on to the next thing.
I'd rather people loved it than hated it, but the more famous you get the more people love you and the more people hate you. If you're doing anything that isn't anodyne and watered-down then you will polarise people. And it's good to polarise because some people are smart and some people are stupid."
But that's sort of the point, isn't it? As fans, we love Gervais for everything that Special Correspondents isn't. If this is a passion project, how do we reconcile it with the other projects that feel so inherently expressive of who he is a creator? How is this anything like the tender, anxiety-filled triumphs of The Office or Extras? Or the beauty of Derek? They weren't anodyne or watered down, and they were incredibly good: Special Correspondents on the other hand feels like a mid-career crisis.
The strength of Gervais' other projects is that you couldn't imagine anyone else as the characters he plays, or anyone else writing them. Who else could be David Brent or Derek? Nobody. Unfortunately for Special Correspondents, he could have been swopped out with any number of actors who probably would have fit the role better - worryingly, someone like Kevin James could probably have slotted in and worked better.
Perhaps it's because it's a remake that Gervais feels so uncomfortably jammed into the film? When he's writing from the ground up, he can put more of himself into films and shows, which is to the benefit of his creative brand. When he's cribbing from something that already exists, it's inevitable that the magic is diluted. So why take it on in the first place?
Despite his claims that people will hate him more as he gets more famous, Special Correspondents proves that Gervais isn't bullet-proof at all. And frankly, it's perhaps worth it to remind yourself why you loved Ricky Gervais in the first place. Because is this is an indication of what he's going to be making when he feels braver and is making things for "himself", then we should probably expect further disappointments down the line.
That will certainly be a lot better than committing to watching this rare Netflix miss. If you're expecting vintage Gervais, don't bother. If you're looking for a smart, politically loaded comedy with clever performances from two actors capable of great things, also don't bother. It's hard to really recommend the film on any level other than as background distraction, but even then you'll wonder quite what twisted Ricky Gervais' arm so far behind his back to not only make it, but to also suggest he actually loves it.