David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)
Directed by Ricky Gervais • Written by Ricky Gervais
With Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden and Tom Bennett.
Since we last met him, David Brent’s rock n’ roll aspirations haven’t waned. The multi-talented Ricky Gervais returns with his own downbeat version of Spinal Tap does Dad-rock, in this new mockumentary, David Brent: Life on the Road. Now in his 50’s, David Brent is having one last crack at the music industry. He’s working as a sales rep, frequenting the same painfully-familiar office surroundings, spouting the same old cliche, dreaming of an album deal to escape from the humdrum. He uses his pension assets to hire a band of session musicians to go out on tour, taking unpaid leave from work to pursue his dream.
Without the presence of strong supporting narratives, like those brought about by Tim, Gareth and Dawn in the series, there’s a distinct feeling of something missing. Indeed, the film as a whole seems less fleshed-out than you might hope, leaving a sense of wanting more at the end. But then Gervais (and Brent) might argue – isn’t that what all the best entertainment is supposed to do!? Well, in this case, yes and no. Not giving us more seems to deprive the film of an opportunity to be great, even though thanks to Gervias’s strong hold on his fascinatingly contrived central character, it is, for the most part, very good.
Gervais employs the same fly-on-the-wall style of the TV show, with a tinge of cinematic expanse. We still get random inserts of unmanned photocopiers whirring away, which in the series, created a sense of dry amusement, whereas when repeated here, have the feel of a little nod to what came before. You could apply that to much of the film – David Brent is in the same place we left him, creating the same social stink for a fresh set of characters to endure in the name of our amusement.
But then, therein lies the intelligence behind this character. There are moments when Gervias makes us feel complicit in the bullying – almost like being back at school, on the fringes of playtime banter between a few kids, when gradually, the humour is taken too far and one of the kids begins to get bullied. You question yourself, am I part of the harassment if I’m still laughing!? Gervais seldom seems to do straight-up comedy, more like, he layers his films with multiple layers of it, all of which lead to side-roads of moral inquisition.
Then we have the songs. If you listen closely, you can’t deny the genius in Gervais’s achievement of writing songs that are deliberately bad, yet somehow good. They’re funny and tragic, both musically and lyrically, as Brent adopts a faux-American accent – desperately trying to bottle ‘cool’ to give himself some kind of real world acceptance. It’s immediately funny that his ability to play the guitar and sing in tune gives him the platform to do what he does, yet even with this skill, he still manages to make himself a social pariah.
There’s no question that David Brent works best in his position of office manager, but still, it’s a lot of fun to revisit the character and Gervais hasn’t lost sight of that keen sense of pathos that often exists in his best work. He achieved it brilliantly in the final few episodes of the TV series, and he repeats it here with bells – making us care about David Brent by sending him out into a world in which he is hopelessly out of his depth. He’s bullied, ridiculed and humiliated at regular intervals, and even though we know he’s often the victim of his own downfall, we can’t help but want the best for him. 3.5/5