Director: Ricky Gervais Starring: Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Tom Basden Running Time: 96 minutes
It’s hard to say goodbye if you don’t leave and though David Brent has been laying low since the original version of The Office ended in 2003, so much of him is tied up in Ricky Gervais’ comedic persona that we’ve never really had time to miss him. We know that he will say offensive things, we know that he will be thin-skinned, we know that he will dance badly. Gervais is a talented enough comedian to get laughs out of these tools of his trade, but David Brent: Life on the Road provides little that hasn’t been provided by Extras, or the Golden Globes or Twitter. It would be a regression if so much of it wasn’t par for the course.
Life on the Road returns to the mockumentary format with David Brent once again being followed by a documentary crew, his reality star status from The Office having long, long since faded away, leaving him as sales rep in an office that somehow manages to be even less glamorous than Wernham Hogg. It’s entirely possible that Brent is paying for the documentary crew himself this time, such is the extent to which he is throwing money away in pursuit of his dream to be a rock star; in his eyes their standard ‘where are they now’ piece is a sexy, dangerous The Last Waltz style documentary chronicling the tour of his band, Foregone Conclusion. Brent has gone to great personal expense to tour pubs and student unions in the general Berkshire region, all while irritating all his bandmates, reluctant band manager Dan and sidelined rapper Dom Johnson.
Though Gervais’ deserves credit for avoiding the usual pitfalls of Brits transporting TV characters to the big screen (i.e. he doesn’t just send Brent to Magaluf and call it a day), structuring the whole film around Brent’s musical ambitions is odd, zeroing in on just one of his delusions almost limits the character. Though some of the songs are able to garner laughs (a sappy Christmas song about a dying boy is a tasteless highlight), parody songs don’t exactly leap to mind as the best thing about David Brent.
It’s been made very clear that this is a David Brent film, not an Office film, but focusing so much on him creates problems, streching out the awkwardness from a half hour to feature length while stripping a lot of what softened it on television. That means little focus on other characters, no Tim and Dawn to share the focus, no Gareth to laugh at as an alternative. Dom Johnson’s attempt to make it as a rapper is a solid side story, but the whole point is that “manager”/”friend” Brent keeps sidelining him. Tom Bennett, whose twittery delighted in Love and Friendship earlier this year, shows up occasionally as a like-minded buffoon back in David’s new office, but far too briefly. Every other character is a straight man to Brent’s antics and the talking heads format, rather than being used to flesh them out or provide gags on their part, only serve to underline that they think he is awkward after he has done something awkward. With no one else to share the load, Life on the Road quickly becomes an hour and a half of how sad David Brent is, even making it explicit that he has depression and the brief light at the end only slightly alleviates what we see of his desperate life. Paying his bandmates to get a drink with him isn’t cringe comedy, it’s just quietly sad.
It’s often been said that Stephen Merchant – not involved here – was needed as Gervais’ writing partner to provide the heart, while Gervais provides the acerbic edge. Is that really true though? It now starts to seem that both are capable at providing heart separately but together balance each other out. Perhaps Merchant’s goofy sensibilities keep the scripts fun and prevent the tragicomedy from veering into The Day The Clown Cried territory. Derek, which also lacked Merchant’s involvement, was mawkish and too often Life on the Road wallows in sympathy for Brent.
Gervais rewards his character with a woman in the office who actually likes him (if only he would notice her) and has the guys touring with Brent, who at best tolerate him, come around in the end for no real reason other than that he’s too sad to hate. Though Life on the Road keeps Brent’s return grounded and does provide some laughs, it’s a must at the cinema for big fans only. For everyone else curious to see Brent again, wait to catch him on television, in one form or another.