Editor’s Notes: David Brent: Life on the Road is currently out in limited release.
At times it feels difficult, even impossible to determine where Ricky Gervais ends and David Brent begins. The British comedian’s seminal creation, an excruciatingly clueless, borderline misogynistic boss from the fiery pits of hell, has come to define his unpredictable, frequently uneven career. From his fearless Golden Globes hosting gigs to the arm-gnawingly awkward Invention of Lying, Gervais has displayed a remarkable insight into the mundane intricacies and eccentricities of modern life. Nowhere has this piercing, unsentimental lens been more apparent than his cult sitcom The Office, a show which birthed both Gervais’ illustrious reign and his most enduring character to date. 12 years after The Office’s poignant final note, Gervais has struck one final chord in this heartfelt, insipid and largely unnecessary big-screen outing. Though it lacks many of the despondent laughs that defined its predecessor, Life on the Road nonetheless imports the same potent blend of cringe, heart and astute observation.
Though it lacks many of the despondent laughs that defined its predecessor, Life on the Road nonetheless imports the same potent blend of cringe, heart and astute observation.
We are reunited with Brent in familiar territory; a beige, uninspiring office building somewhere in Middle England. Besides a minor shift in scenery, little has changed for the odious toad in behaviour or workplace popularity. He still grinds on the nerves of colleagues, makes hilariously inappropriate passes at out-of-his-league women and continues to hold an unshakable musical passion. He’s about to cash in the last of his pension and hit the road for a hopelessly ill-advised tour with his band Foregone Conclusion, along with reluctant rapper-come-protégé Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey-Smith, empathetic and engaging as a young talent caged by his loyalty to Brent’s not inconsiderable ego).
Gervais himself experienced brief fame as frontman for new wave group Seona Dancing, and his genuinely impressive singing voice lends Brent an added layer of tragedy. He could well achieve great fame and fortune, if only he weren’t such a pillock. The uncomfortably gentrified reggae track Equality Street and painfully offensive power ballad Native American undercut unmistakable pure intentions with Wikipedia-level nuance. Gervais relies on similar shock tactics for the film’s musical and comedic standouts, namely rally cry Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds (made increasingly unbearable by Brent’s continued dialogue with a wheelchair user in his tiny audience) and an extended monologue questioning the origin of women’s bodily fluids. Those exchanges feel directly ripped from a lost Office tapes, as does Gervais’ proficient documentarian style.
Each cast member delivers a naturalistic turn, invariably a degree of resigned disbelief at Brent’s extraordinary ineptitude.
Life on the Road follows the same mockumentary format, presenting the footage as a follow-up special on Brent’s televisual (mis-)adventures. Each cast member delivers a naturalistic turn, invariably a degree of resigned disbelief at Brent’s extraordinary ineptitude. Unfortunately, a 90-minute feature refuses the ensemble to truly come alive as people besides the titular star and Johnson’s audience-surrogate sidekick. This becomes an overwhelming issue towards the last act, where the exasperated band take a sudden, seemingly random liking towards Brent. This haphazard, frankly lazy writing undercuts the finale’s emotional impact, rendering much of the latter half largely pointless.
Although packed with the authenticity and wit that won The Office its worldwide success, Life on the Road’s insistence on racial and sexual humour quickly grows tiresome, leaving many scenes flat, inert wasteland with few inventive punchlines to offset the oppressive discomfort. Gervais certainly retains his brutal eye for everyday British life, but Life on the Road feels like one day at the office too many for this once-revolutionary talent.
Gervais certainly retains his brutal eye for everyday British life, but Life on the Road feels like one day at the office too many for this once-revolutionary talent.