David Brent: Life on the Road
Ricky Gervais resurrects his greatest comedic creation…but is it any good?
Wernham Hogg Personnel File:
David Brent: Life on the Road
Writer /Director /Star: Ricky Gervais
Genre: Comedy / Docu-Drama /Musical /Television Adaptation
Cert 15 /BBC Films /On General Release Across the UK now
David Brent (Gervais) is a Rep at a Chemical Products company. But he still nurtures a dream of music stardom. So he puts a team together and hits the road for a tour of the least glamorous clubs and hotels in Britain. Will he live the dream? Or is this just the start of a nightmare that will finally see Brent accept his limitations and move on with his life? The stage is set for Life on the Road..
What made the character of David Brent a success? What makes any character a success? The same rules apply in both cases. You need a solid base of recurring situations and locations. A truly supportive, supporting cast. And a sense that the lead character has some skill set or quality (or lack of) that evolves and yet keeps them basically the same in fictional stasis..moving and even learning on occasion, whilst somehow remaining true to what made them ‘work’.
The system has examples that prove the rules. In comedy: Fawlty Towers, Black-Adder, Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Alan Partridge et al. Action adventure: James Bond, Indiana Jones, Tony Stark, Captain Kirk, Batman and so on. The rules are not truly genre specific but it’s fair to say that they are perhaps clearest in a British sitcom and especially one that attempts a tricky transfer to the big screen. And so it is with DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD.
Brent started life in a sketch / pitch for a sitcom. That in turn became THE OFFICE from 2001-3, with two series and a set of Christmas specials. It made history in its success, notably the sales and spin offs and remakes worldwide (the USA version ran over 7 series and is a brand in itself) and that brand empire made Gervais a star and a wealthy one, at that.
The socially inept Brent was of course the star and lead character. But his appeal lay in his interaction with a very specific supporting cast who both enabled and opposed his follies. Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) was one such asset, with Brent dispensing ‘wisdom’ to his slightly scary, rather odd but nonetheless earnest and ambitious sidekick.
And there was a team of other characters to anchor the show in an emotional reality, be they antagonist or ally to Mr. Brent. Point is: it was called The Office for a reason. The show was about rising above one’s limitations in a stifling work environment, whilst accepting a vocation to remain there for some and the dangers inherent in failing to do so. It was a cautionary tale; warning us to see the David Brent in all of us / our bosses and harness that knowledge to avoid similar mistakes and awkwardly retrospective regrets.
People often think of Brent as a Boss from Hell or funny because he was somehow incompetent in his Office job. Not so. Remember that he was the lead character in a faux docu-drama; a send up of those reality television stars who won a profile through brief television exposure of their day job. He had secured a middle management position which is why, in that fictional universe he inhabited, it was his face fronting the show. The joke was that in being exposed even briefly to a whiff of fame, the character developed delusions of grandeur.
Constantly mugging for camera and trying to look cool, politically correct and popular, Brent’s day job performance in office chores took an increasingly back seat and the series became a document of rising hubris and resulting fall to redundancy and obscurity, before a final redemption and hint at renaissance and even love. In short. the man had learned his lessons. Yes, he’d still seek fame and be flattered by any attention or hint of cool star status, but equally, he would in time accept a day job, a relationship and learn his limitations. The end.
The challenge for Life on the Road was somehow taking the Brent character and transferring him to another environment and situation. Sadly, even Ricky Gervais, Brent’s creator, cannot quite make it work. This is neither a satisfying expansion of The Office mythology nor substantially funny stand alone product. It takes all the painful bits from the television series and whilst omitting the supporting staples that made Brent work in the first place.
There are some belly-laughs. And yes, it is either post modernist jab at our P/C culture or thinly disguised schoolboy name calling and baiting. Either way, the laughs work when they happen and there are arguably enough to justify watching the film. One feels zero guilt at some fairly innocuous and adolescent antics on display.
It’s a nice escape, in an era where we are all on guard in our professional and private lives about what is acceptable in language and thought and what is ‘inappropriate’. Similar to the sensation of relief and illicit outlet one gets from watching a Sacha Baron Cohen skit (Ali Gi/Borat /Bruno). It is a thin line, however, and there are moments where Gervais’ Brent has crossed it, and equally, you’ll just ‘know'; when he goes too far on film, as with television.
The ironic joke in Life on the Road with Brent is that he genuinely wants to be ‘on message’ socially and yet the louder he shouts and harder he tries, the more offensive his material becomes, both in song and in his improvised comedy with colleagues / band-mates.
It’s cringe worthy stuff, because even the best of us has to some extent ‘been there’. That brand of comedy of course is not exclusive to Brent. Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is the master of such awkward social commentary. Indeed, Life on the Road owes a great deal to Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, without ever truly matching that film’s finesse.
The music in Life on the Road is excellent. There are tunes one can sing in a shower. The lyrics have been crafted for optimal comedic and lyrical impact, whilst moving so quickly and cleverly that I’d challenge anyone to try recreating them with even a scintilla of Gervais’ competence. As a musical therefore, this movie does indeed ‘work’. Big Time.
And that would be fine..except that the ‘joke’ at the film’s core is supposedly the fact that Brent is overstretching himself and needs to accept a lack of musical talent? Yes, his lyrics are wildly inappropriate and much is made of his over explaining his songs before simply performing on stage.
But one would still be entertained by Brent’s band (Foregone Conclusion) if they were the talent on offer some night in a local Pub or student union. It’s why the extras / background performers (many of whom shamelessly overact) are simply getting it wrong when they do impatient or bored faces in the gig scenes. It’s also why the whole sub-plot about a record company visiting and yet not signing Brent also falls flat. He’d be signed up today in a flash.
Brent’s music is actually good in a way and whilst the character might be a social misfit and his lyrics wildly off the mark, they’d nonetheless be a gold mine in our era of the ‘ironic’ X Factor contestant. Remember Jedward? Ok, you might not. But it doesn’t matter. They made a lot of money and did very well all things considered, in a manner that Brent would today, were he ‘real’. One character asks Brent whether ‘Simon Cowell has signed him up’. Well, fact is that today, Cowell would probably jump at a chance to exploit the singer.
Gervais missed an opportunity here. He could easily have made an X Factor style rocku-mocku-mentary and enjoyed his implicit and indeed explicit social sermonising about media ethics (see also Gervais’ EXTRAS: 2005-7, especially its self indulgent conclusion) whilst giving Brent some genuine fun and success? That way you’d get the laughs, the message and a bit of feel-good fun. Here we just get a few laughs, a fairly dark tone and some ironically fine music in a movie supposedly about a man who has overstretched himself by trying to make music?
As a piece of film, Life on the Road is also wanting. Indeed, even if this were a television film, there’d be something missing. The editing is frequently slow and laboured, the sound vacuum sometimes echoes awkwardly and the pace can drag. There is an absence of cinematic gloss and that’s a real shame because it is possible for great British movies, on budget restrictions, to somehow appeal to a Hollywood notion of an idealised bygone Britain via occasional grit and doses of drab.
See: The Full Monty, Four Weddings and a Funeral, End of the Affair, Brassed Off, Skyfall, About a Boy and the previously cited Alpha Papa. Genre, class and even quality vary in each case yet they all managed to make British locations and related atmospherics a kind of character in itself. Gervais simply has not accomplished that level of craftsmanship yet, despite or perhaps because of his having creative control as director. Had he collaborated with a director like Roger Michell or Mike Newell? Who knows what might have been, but it’s fair to say that we’d be looking at a better advert for the nation as well as a bigger hit.
This all begs the question of why the thing was made at all? Gervais resurrected Brent for a 2013 Comic Relief skit and that was genuinely funny and promising as a spring board for more from this character, via an initial campaign of viral videos. But what we get with this full movie is a small, often sad and even depressingly dour rehash of material we’ve seen done before and better. Is the moral of the movie that Brent (and by extension, we as viewers?) must not chase dreams?
Well, ok. Except this is made by a man who did chase his and succeeded and did so, much like Brent himself, whilst retaining day jobs and neither giving up completely nor being self destructive enough to abandon everything but said dream-quest and it paid off. So, if Gervais is indeed telling us not to seek out fame..isn’t that well.. a bit..rich? Just sayin’, like. Meta-textual irony. Brent now laughs at his creator? Possibly.
So if it’s not a moral message / cautionary tale…can we watch this just for pure comedy? Sadly no. Yes, it’s funny in places but inconsistently. And for all the genuine laughs and painfully poignant pathos and irony, there are moments that cross a line from satire and slapstick to a kind of adolescent school bully nastiness.
Mental health for a start is simply not a place to go for laughs, especially when commenting on those unfortunate enough to be seeking CBT /Prozac for their pain. And no, it’s not a post-modern comment on the evils of the pharma industry. I’m genuinely surprised Gervais ‘went there’ to be frank, when one considers that (contrary to some critics’ beliefs and Gervais’ own nasty stand up at the Golden Globes), his is in fact a deeply sensitive and caring soul, as seen in his animal rights activism.
So where to from here?
Perhaps Gervais can combine the best of all worlds and have a run playing villains on film? He tried once in JJ Abrams’ ALIAS. He has the beard for it. And the comedic cadence can switch to sinister in a blink, easily. Some time doing that might even help him rediscover the essential heart that was ultimately key to the success of Brent in The Office? Just a thought.
Is this the end for Brent? I love the character so I really hope not. But the obvious way to salvage anything from Life on the Road is to perhaps make a one off, made for television /Netflix film. Special Correspondents proved that Ricky can thrive on that platform.
And, with our current penchant for shared universes in film, it makes sound sense to pad things out with cameos from old UK Office alumni (bring back Gareth!) and its USA counterparts (Steve Carell’s Michael Scott and Rickey Gervais’ David Brent..together again at last?). Even better and bigger? Why not finally unite Brent with his kindred comedic spirit..Alan Partridge? Just a thought.
Conclusion (as in Forgone):
Oooooo..yeah..you’re there looking at this yeah thinking ‘he’s a film critic yeah': cut to the chase..shoot..should I see this with my hard earned cash (said the actress to the Bishop..or actor..if gay..I’m not..but each to their own..come one come all I say..yeah)
David Brent: Life on the Road will make you laugh on occasion and even sing along to a soundtrack that might be worth its own download /purchase. The film as a whole is sadly disappointing. There is no doubt that Brent remains an engaging and funny character but this was not quite the platform to extend his fictional universe.
File under ‘fine but could have been great’. Missable at the Cinema but possibly, passably watchable once it hits home entertainment. Glimpses of greatness cannot balance a deficit of genuine warmth, joy and fun, muddled morality and unremarkable production values.
Must try harder to be truly worthwhile if revisiting Brent in a sequel /spin-off.
2.5/5. / C+