When I walked out of seeing David Brent: Life on the Road the other day I thought to myself (as I’m sure many of you did); did the world really need a David Brent movie? The answer, of course, is no; David Brent got a near perfect ending in the Christmas special of The Office all the way back in 2003. But perhaps more important than the answer was the question (deep af); if Life on the Road had been good, then I wouldn’t have been asking whether it was needed.
Life on the Road isn’t awful; in fact, it’s better than most of what Ricky Gervais has been making since he split with Stephen Merchant after the Warwick Davis mockumentary Life’s too Short. But it still exhibits most of what makes New Ricky (as I like to call him) a disappointment as a solo writer. To fully understand this, you need to look at 2002 David Brent. Brent is known as the sad sack of a boss, someone who is detestable and would be easy to laugh at were it not for that hint of inner sadness Gervais’ brilliant performance imbues him with. Whereas Michael Scott in the US version of The Office is an idiot who makes you question the Wernham Hogg hiring system, David Brent is clearly capable of his job, only faltering when he has to demonstrate a strength he doesn’t have, which brings out the worst in him. It’s a really lovely piece of writing from Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais; a subtle character study that I haven’t done justice to here. Even in his most extreme and memorable moments (the dance, Freelove Freeway), which Gervais clearly draws upon in Life on the Road, there’s a subtlety that wouldn’t be found in the US equivalent. The excruciating dance scene only takes place as a sad act of desperation to regain his title as ‘chilled-out entertainer…fact’, and the guitar rendition of Freelove Freeway is one of the few times we see Brent actually intentionally entertain his workforce. (By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the UK version of The Office, you owe it to yourself as a comedy fan.)
I hate to say it then, but Gervais completely misses the point of his own character in Life on the Road. That isn’t to say Life on the Road isn’t funny, it is; I laughed a fair number of times at some of the more outrageous jokes, and the songs are Flight of the Conchords or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend level i.e. comedy songs that are funny and well-made in their own right (my personal favourite being the titular ‘Life on the Road’). But Gervais strips out all of the subtlety from Brent. Sure, when David Brent proudly exclaims ‘racial’ after singing the line ‘The spaceman he answered “You no longer mind, I’ve opened your eyes, you’re now colour-blind”‘, it raises one of the biggest laughs of the scene. But to then make half the songs in the film just Brent spouting obviously racist or offensive lines is just misunderstanding the character.
The excruciatingly ‘cringy’ elements of Brent have also been turned up to eleven. Again, his constant racially charged remarks to his accompanying rapper Dom Johnson (played by real life rap comedian Doc Brown) are inconsistent with the original Brent, who, while not exactly PC, was never so blunt before. Worst of all to my earbuds is the laugh, which Gervais employs as if it were an instant laugh button. Unfortunately, it’s more like an instant trip to the otolaryngologist (yes, I had to look that up), it’s so annoying and grating. Maybe more successfully cringy/depressing is watching Brent drain his own money on his tour, which the film revolves around. Like seeing a Dragon’s Den entrepreneur who’s spent their life’s savings on a ‘foreign driving glove’ (look it up), this is some of the most painful cinema I’ve seen since the Saw films. That is until Gervais once again takes it over the edge in a scene where Brent has to pay for his bandmates to have a drink with him. That’s just too much (although maybe not – this Brent is 20 times more annoying than the original, so…)
The conclusion you might be coming to might be; would the film work better if Brent wasn’t the name of the character, and the answer is sadly, yes. By calling him David Brent, you suddenly have to live up to the legacy of one of the greatest comedic creations on all of television, which Gervais by himself clearly can’t handle. But the film wouldn’t be perfect. Even without raised expectations created by branding, the over-the-top nature of Brent in this film just isn’t all that funny. Another aspect of the film that would still be there without Brent is the hacky sentimentality New Gervais ™ tries to force into all of his projects. It works especially poorly here; when Brent is so exaggerated as to be repellent rather than just sad, we stop believing that anyone would regard him as a friend. So when the ending rolls around and all the characters suddenly go ‘I like that David, he’s a good chap really’, it feels unearned because David hasn’t really changed during the course of the film. And don’t get me started on his new girlfriend.
While Life on the Road wasn’t so bad as to retroactively cast a bad light over The Office, it was a real disappointment. The Office will continue to stand as one of the best TV shows ever made and Life on the Road will be a footnote in its history.