David Brent: Life on the Road, 2016.
Directed by Ricky Gervais.
Starring Ricky Gervais, Jo Hartley, Doc Brown, Tom Bennett and Mandeep Dhillon.
Clueless sales representative David Brent, famed for 2000’s documentary The Office, returns as he self-funds his own rock star tour with band Foregone Conclusion…
In the vein a few years ago of Steve Coogan taking his famed comic character Alan Partridge to the big screen, Ricky Gervais here attempts to repeat the trick with his most iconic and long lasting creation, David Brent. We last saw the Slough-based middle manager at the end of The Office, the docu-style hit BBC series from the early 2000’s which made the character, and Gervais, a sensation. Brent had lost his job as manager of paper merchants Wernham Hogg but appeared to have found some measure of inner peace, but Life on the Road reveals that to have been a false dawn.
As we discover, Brent lost direction, lost an element of hope, but rediscovered a reason to carry on by planning to pursue his long-held dream of being not just a ‘chilled out entertainer’ but a rock star. Filmed in the same documentary style as The Office, Gervais’ sequel presents Brent as a misguided, deluded office rep who, using cashed-in pension money, attempts to buy his way to fame, fortune and adoration, the latter of which ultimately is what Brent’s dream is all about. Gervais’s film, and indeed the ‘saga’ of David Brent as the man hagiographically describes at one point, is simply about a man who just wants people to like him.
Therein of course lies the comedy, and why Brent in The Office instantly became one of those classic British comic creations: the loser. Whether or not you place Brent in the same league as Partridge or Hancock or Basil Fawlty etc… they all share the same essential characteristic – they are doomed to be eternal failures, never to achieve the success that deeply frustrates them. Brent has more in line with a Hancock than a grotesque like Fawlty though; Gervais, for all his slightly tasteless edge, has always layered his comedy with a sentimentality which sometimes works (Extras) and sometimes doesn’t (Derek).
Ultimately Gervais wants Brent to be likeable in his desperate attempt to *be* liked, and though Life on the Road doesn’t have an arc as such for Brent (beyond learn to love yourself, which doesn’t take the greatest catalyst), he’s never truly horrible enough to be repulsively funny. The film has plenty of jokes about homosexuals, black people, the disabled, all the types Gervais has always simultaneously mocked and coveted, but he couches everything in the idea that Brent is just misguided, just clueless, and reinforces this through the supporting characters, all of whom frequently as part of the docu-style remind us Brent’s actions aren’t the actions of a person acting rationally who has any kind of awareness.
Conversely, Gervais ensures there remains an office set up so he can surround David with people sympathetic to his ways – be it Jo Hartley’s nicely, homely accounts worker or the girl on reception, or Nigel (Tom Bennett), Brent’s geeky work foil who bounces off his jokes. Gervais is at pains to make sure there are far more loathsome workers for Brent to come up against, such as one or two oily reps, and there’s an odd line about ‘times changing’ to explain this away, but ultimately he’s always painting Brent as nice but lost & bewildered, constantly unaware of the taste line or appropriateness; there’s a nice moment early on when an HR woman pulls him up for his conduct, which in retrospect its bizarre didn’t happen when he was the boss!
Gervais’ comic creations are never as complex in his best shows as those around him (see Tim, Dawn & Gareth in The Office) but Brent was always at his best when he was genuinely a little bit self aggrandising & irritating. When Gervais did then add depth and emotion, it paid off. Here, as much as Brent says and does comically awful things, that depth is so apparent it strangely dilutes the comedy in places, and Gervais wouldn’t know a plot if it smacked him in the face. It always stays true to the tone and true to the character, but it lacks bite underneath the coarse gags and moments of painful awkwardness, lacking the subtlety or quiet drama of The Office. Gervais’s script and his supporting characters simply spell out too much.
This isn’t to say Life on the Road is lacking laughs, quite the opposite. Yet one wonders if they are as readily apparent if you’re not a fan of Ricky Gervais or David Brent, or indeed Gervais’s style of comedy, his fusion of near the knuckle, post-modern retrograde humour with mawkish sentimentality. His comedy outwardly has always been obvious when in many respects he’s cloaked his best work with shades of drama and depth, but Life on the Road wears everything too openly and honestly on its sleeve to truly rise up into the annals of great British comedy movies. It will make any fan of Brent laugh though, and often, and though this may be faint praise, it’s easily the best thing Gervais has delivered on the big screen yet. Do I want a sequel? Yes please, guilty.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★