In 1954, a radio engineer named Albert Piteux (which appropriately translates to Albert Pitiful in French) used sound effects to pretend he was reporting live from the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, even though he was safe in his hotel room in Hanoi–on the complete opposite side of Vietnam. This event inspired the 2009 comical French film Envoyes Tres Speciaux by director Frederick Auburtin. The story follows national radio host Frank Bonnyville and his engineer Albert Poussin as they stage a fake radio broadcast from the Iraq War, even though they never left the country after Albert mistakenly threw their passports in the garbage.
Ricky Gervais’ new film Special Correspondents–new to Netflix streaming–is a remake of Envoyes Tres Speciaux. He changed the Iraq War to a war in Ecuador, maybe to distance it slightly from current affairs or as a logistics issue with getting his characters to cross the borders illegally. He changed the national radio station to a local radio station, presumably because Gervais is king of the underdog stories. This is Gervais doing what Gervais does best: sappy stories about losers. Frank and Albert–now named Ian–are losers in their own unique ways. Frank is a hack reporter who gets by on his good looks, but that’s not enough to save him from his boss firing him if he screws up one more time. Ian is in a doomed marriage and has no real interest beyond his engineering job and comic books. They make a perfect pair of protags for Gervais to scribble into all sorts of trouble. Problem is, as good as the sappy tragedy and romance is, the film is stuck in genre limbo. It could have been written as a rip-roaring comedy or a suspenseful drama with some dark humor thrown in, but instead it’s trying to be a little of both. There are only a few laugh out loud moments, and the tone is too light to survive as a drama. The fact that everything the characters are dealing with–betraying their loved ones, journalists taken hostage, conning the public for their support–is so heavy means this could have been one hell of a drama, maybe to the tone of Mad Dogs. Instead, it treads a delicate line, trying to avoid bad taste and parody for something as close to home as kidnapped civilians in a war zone. Many people have experienced these situations themselves, so it’s tricky territory.
Personally I was relieved to see that Gervais didn’t balance out the heartfelt moments with dirty humor like he has done in Cemetery Junction and Derek. I’m not sure if it’s been rated, but it’s probably PG-13. It feels much less edgy than some of Gervais’ other things. I don’t mind that it’s less edgy. I actually prefer the sentimental stuff that Gervais writes, but I didn’t feel for any of the characters. Most of them deserved what they got, and Ian’s wife was too callous to be real.
I admit I haven’t seen Envoyes Tres Speciaux, but I wonder if there is a cultural difference or even an era difference within a mere seven years that makes it feel as old school as Special Correspondents does. You’ve got prostitutes soliciting on a busy street in broad daylight in New York City, every foreign person is over the top with an exaggerated accent; and Bonneville has that cliche “You’re a nuisance, but you’re beautiful, so I’m going to let you off this time” relationship with the police chief as he–once again clichely–fakes his way onto a crime scene. There’s no internet to speak of. The main characters don’t even realize how much trouble they’re in until they sneak outside to buy a copy of the New York Post. At the end of the day, maybe it should have been a period flick set in the 80s–or hell, the 50s, considering that was the time Albert Piteux lived.
This film has such fabulous conflicts, complex emotions, and connections to current events that I think it deserves one more remake. This time as a drama.