David Brent: Life On The Road
UK (2016) Dir. Ricky Gervais
It appears to be de rigueur to preface every review of this big screen return for the incomparably cringe worthy David Brent with a disclaimer proclaiming a love of the TV series The Office from whence he came. Perhaps to prepare us for a potential critical mauling or to justify glowing praise, but at least everyone loved The Office.
We catch up with Mr. Brent a decade plus removed from the TV documentary that shot him to instant obscurity (except in his own mind), now working as a rep for sanitary products firm Lavichem. Still making inappropriate jokes and misjudging his popularity by a country mile, Brent is now part of the office chain rather that the top of it, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his thirst for stardom.
Using money from a number of cashed in personal pensions, Brent takes eleven (unpaid) days holiday from work to hit the road with his newly recruited band Forgone Conclusion (Mark II) along with aspiring rapper/protégé Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) on a two week tour across Berkshire that Brent hopes will his springboard to rock ’n’ roll fame and fortune.
Having declared on many occasions that he had put his most famous and successful comic creation to rest, Ricky Gervais did a U-turn our current Government would be proud of and brought the nightmare boss from Slough out of the woodwork for one final hurrah. As ever a decision like this would always be a huge gamble especially after many fans felt the David Brent story had its perfect conclusion back in 2003.
Then again, there is something inherently curious and dangerously addictive about the character that makes people wonder, what did happen after The Office ended? Gervais clearly felt the same and decided there was some mileage left in the tank for Brent after all. And as ever the reception to this feature length outing has proven to be as polarising as Gervais himself.
A major handicap for this film is its inescapable ties to the original TV series people will naturally compare it to, and while we shouldn’t – this is NOT The Office revisited – Gervais himself invites this by having Brent once again posited in familiar surroundings as a slave of the 9 to 5 rat race. The story could have easily began with Brent ready to go out on tour to avoid this, yet the idea of Bent going from master to serf is still valid in illustrating how far he has or hasn’t come since we last saw him.
Expanding on this a little, Brent’s colleagues at Lavichem will have viewers assigning them counterparts from The Office line-up – receptionist Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) is obviously Dawn; Pauline (Jo Hartley), who harbours a crush on Brent is mousy Sheila; top sales rep and Brent hater Jezza (Andrew Brooke) is part Finchy, while the jocular half of Finchy mixed in with Gareth is found in Nigel (Tom Bennett).
They may be their own people but comparison will be made to old favourites like Tim, Dawn, Gareth etc. but it has to be said the Lavichem bunch could have worked just as well had this been a revamp of the original series. Instead, the comedy is forced to focus on the limited scope of the new band and the ostensible one note joke of the disaster that is the Forgone Conclusion tour.
You seriously didn’t expect Brent to realise his musical dreams did you? That would rob the story of its central appeal – seeing him fall flat on his deluded face “with hilarious consequences”. The last bit is of course subject to your sense of humour and while some gags work very well, the repetition is noticeable – Spinal Tap (which Gervais is a massive fan of) this isn’t.
If it isn’t the recurring empty venues, it is the embarrassing stage raps prior to each song, in which Brent explains the noble message behind it in his usual clumsy and insensitive fashion. Then again, a song such a “Don’t Laugh At The Disabled” shouldn’t have been written let alone warranting a lengthy ham fisted stage introduction, no matter how well intentioned the motives are.
But this is Brent’s raison d’être and why he is such a perversely compelling character to witness crashing and burning. What the script does however is expose the influence his regular collaborator Stephen Merchant had over their projects – if any – as the relentless catalogue of racial faux pas will attest. There is a clumsiness about it that puts it beyond satirising bigots or the tactless.
Rapper Dom is Brent’s token of credibility to offset any accusations of racism but that doesn’t stop Brent saying the wrong thing to Dom’s face, usually earning an exasperated eye roll in response. The rest of the band (all genuine musicians) and beleaguered road manager/sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden) may all be paid to do the tour but refuse to socialise with Brent, wondering what they have got themselves into.
The frustrating thing about this film is what one can see what Gervais was going for. The premise is great and unquestionably congruent to the character and in continuing his story from The Office, but what made the show was the entire cast, their unique personalities, interactions and so forth. As the unambiguous title informs us, this is solely about David Brent and he alone sadly isn’t enough to carry an entire film.
I can see why people may love this film and why others would be disappointed by it. The effort is there and the songs are actually quite good (cringing lyrics and performances aside), but the overall feeling is the self-indulgence of David Brent has manifested itself more in Ricky Gervais himself.
As a fan of The Office I wanted to love Life On The Road but sadly was only mildly entertained. Perhaps for the next project a reunion with Mr. Merchant might be required first, yeah?