David Brent: Life on the Road, 2016.
Written and Directed by Ricky Gervais.
Starring Ricky Gervais, Jo Hartley, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon and Abbey Murphy.
A camera crew catches up with David Brent, the former star of the fictional British series, “The Office” as he now fancies himself a rockstar on the road.
The Office was one of the most successful British comedies of the last twenty years. Its influence can be seen in cringe-coms like Curb Your Enthusiam and documentary-style shows such as Modern Family and, of course, the incredibly popular American remake. It was also one of those very rare shows that didn’t outstay its welcome and went out with a perfect finale. The prospect of that ending being tarnished by a big-screen spin-off set 13 years later made this particular fan quite nervous, but two minutes into the film I was laughing as hard as I was a decade ago – it was like Slough’s favourite son had never left.
As fans of the show will remember, David Brent used to be in a band called Foregone Conclusion, and this film opens with him cashing in his pension(s) to fund a tour with them. Along for the ride are some reluctant young musicians, an even more reluctant sound engineer, and rapper Dom who occasionally performs with Brent but is mainly there to give him street cred as his mixed-race friend (and who spends most of his time standing to one side looking embarrassed anyway). Brent pays for the tour himself, under the naïve assumption that lots of people will come to their gigs and at the end of it he’ll get a record deal and be a big success. Anyone even remotely familiar with the character (or comedy at all, for that matter) can guess right from the outset that that’s not going to happen.
The humour and format of the film is exactly the same as The Office , so much so that it feels like a special extended episode. This essentially means it won’t win many new fans but it should certainly please existing ones. Ever since the show finished there have been so many pale and painful imitations of Gervais’ style of social embarassment comedy that it’s easy to forget just how good he is at it – every line and facial expression is honed and crafted for maximum effect, and it’s a joy to watch him return to the standard he set over a decade ago (especially since his more recent TV projects – Life’s Too Short in particular – have disappointed). Although the film recycles a few jokes and ideas from The Office (Brent getting told off for telling offensive jokes in the workplace, him desperately trying to get people to go for a drink with him, the office bully getting put in his place) there are plenty of original and hilarious scenes – my favourites include Brent getting half a tattoo, and inviting a couple of women back to his hotel room only for them to eat £200 worth of snacks from the mini-bar.
Unlike some big-screen adaptations of British sitcoms, no attempt has been made to make this film more exotic or cinematic than the show it was based on (the band hilariously never travel more than a few miles from their hometown) but this was a wise decision, because at its heart The Office was all about the mundane and the ordinary. Lavichem, the company that Brent works for now, is very similar to Wernham Hogg, but thankfully there are no gratuitous cameos from Tim, Dawn or Gareth. Most of the office staff find Brent annoying and childish, but he does have a best friend called Nigel (played by Tom Bennett) who’s on the same wavelength as him, there’s Kaz the receptionist (Mandeep Dhillon) who admits that he brightens up her day, and there’s his colleague Pauline (Jo Hartley) who supports his dream and has a little crush on him. Even without the support of the The Office’s ensemble cast, Brent is still endearing and entertaining enough to carry the film on his own. However, with the focus firmly on him it does mean that the supporting characters aren’t greatly developed (his publicist, for example, barely gets two lines) but that doesn’t mean they’re not funny – Doc Brown deserves special praise for playing the deadpan counterpart to Brent giggly live-wire.
The film has a great soundtrack, full of sure-to-be fan favourites – the Britpop-esque songs are well produced by Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows (incidentally, his two solo albums are also worth checking out) and, surprisingly, Gervais can actually carry a tune. They may not all be Spinal Tap-grade classics, but they’re catchy and full of brilliantly bad lyrics – highlights include the well-meaning but completely inappropriate ‘Don’t Make Fun Of The Disabled’, and the Wikepdia-researched ‘Native American’. The only scene I felt was unnecessary was where Brent goes on a radio show to promote his upcoming gig but ends up being subjected to a barrage of insults. The key difference between the DJ character and all the other characters in the film is their insults and remarks stem from the frustration of spending time with Brent, so they’re more relatable and doesn’t come across as unprovoked cruelty. The thing about David Brent is no matter how clueless or annoying he may be you can’t help but feel sorry for him because he basically is a nice guy, and by the end of the film everyone stops complaining about him and excluding him long enough to show him some genuine kindness. His realization that his rockstar dream may never come true may not have quite the same impact as the famous redundancy scene from The Office, but it’s still affecting and ends the film on sweet and realistic note.
This is by far Gervais’ best film as a writer/director, although considering his only other efforts are the forgettable Cemetery Junction and The Invention Of Lying (which was just plain abysmal) that’s not saying much. It is, however, the best thing he’s done since Extras, one of the funniest films of the year, and arguably the best mockumentary since Borat – to use a gig related metaphor if I may, it’s is a fitting encore to a superb show.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★