David Brent: Life on the Road

Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett

Director: Ricky Gervais

Writer: Ricky Gervais

Of all the TV comedies that have been made in the last decade and a half, either in America or the UK, few can claim to have been as influential as Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. Not only did it popularise the mockumentary for television but it was also one of the programmes (along with Curb Your Enthusiasm) that pioneered the art of cringe comedy. It is commonly held that all comedy is derived from misery, an idea that cringe comedy pursues to the greatest extreme. The theatrical setups and canned laughter of the sitcom was thus abandoned in favour of authentically awkward encounters and harsh, painful silences. The Office took that concept to even greater heights by adopting a realistic format that still placed an emphasis on the very act of performing for an audience while also keeping them detached. At its best this show could capture humourous moments of such profound agony that we could barely bring ourselves to look at the screen. Now Gervais has revived David Brent to carry that same brand of humour over to the big screen.

15 years after being made redundant by Wernham Hogg, David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is now a sales rep and aspiring musician preparing for a tour. The documentary crew that originally filmed him are now producing a ‘where are they now’ type of piece on Brent that he expects will be his Shine a Light. In order for the tour to happen though he must use up his work holidays and pay for all the arrangements out of his own pocket. Touring with him are his band Foregone Conclusion, who are in it for the money, and aspiring rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), who hopes to further his career in spite of Brent’s hindrances. Dan Harvey (Tom Basden), the group’s sound engineer, accompanies the tour and must try and protect everyone from Brent’s faults including Brent himself. This proves trying as Brent incessantly throws his money away and humiliates them all with each and every gig.

The cringe factor that made The Office such a gamechanger is not as palpable in this film, but it’s definitely there. The dead silences and exasperated looks to the camera that were staples of the TV show are all revived to help attain those painful laughs that Gervais loves so much. These are brought about by Brent’s performances of such wildly inappropriate songs as ‘Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds’ and ‘Native American’ (which includes the lyric “soar like an eagle, sit like a pelican”). These songs with their clueless, politically incorrect lyrics coupled with Brent’s commentary and outrageous attempts at grandstanding provide no end in misery for his bandmates and audiences, resulting in some enjoyably cringeworthy moments. Trust David Brent to write an ode to Princess Diana that finds time to mention AIDS and the different ways that people can contract it. The issue for me though is that the film does get repetitive after a while. There are only so many times you can watch someone make a tit out of himself on stage.

The Office, while hilarious, could also be moving and profound in the moments where it showed how human and vulnerable Brent could be. We got more of that drama here as Gervais shows us Brent’s increased aggravation and desperation in his quest to be accepted by others. In between their gigs, his bandmates are so determined not to spend any time with him that Brent ends up paying them all just to have a pint with him. There’s also a touch of resentment and frustration thrown in when Dom starts getting the attention of a record label rather than Brent. However much of this is sadly undermined by the film’s ending with its abrupt reconciliation. This is perhaps symptomatic of the differences between film and television as formats. So much time has passed since the TV show’s conclusion and so many new elements and characters are introduced in this film that I don’t think a 90 minute runtime was enough to earn the ending that Gervais wanted for Brent.

The film isn’t as deep or as rich as The Office was, but it is funny and enjoyably cringeworthy. While I’m not a fan of the film’s ham-fisted resolution, I enjoyed everything that came before. The soundtrack is hilarious and a lot better than you might expect from someone like Brent, with plenty of highlights including ‘Lady Gypsy’ and ‘Equality Street’. The songs themselves are funny enough but Gervais is able to carry them to greater comedic heights simply through his expressions and gestures. This film may not have been necessary in the grand scheme of things (given that The Office had such a perfect ending) but I certainly enjoyed revisiting this character that Gervais plays so well. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to even compare it to The Office considering that no other character from the series is featured in this film (maybe a film like This is Spinal Tap! would be a more appropriate comparison). The film is by no means a comedic masterpiece but it made me laugh and cringe and I’m glad I saw it.