David Brent: Life On the Road
Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Brown, Jo Hartley
US theatrical: 10 Feb 2017
UK theatrical: 19 Aug 2016
Before reaching the height of his popularity as a celebrity ego-checker, outspoken animal lover, and atheism poster-boy, Ricky Gervais altered the course of TV with the BBC version of The Office, which still stands as his most influential, brilliant work. In standalone Netflix movie David Brent: Life On the Road, Gervais writes, directs, and again stars as Brent, the absurdly, hilariously delusional boor at the center of the original sitcom. The humor remains deliciously cringey, but the mockumentary tells us little about Brent that we didn’t already know.
It’s been 12 years since the original Office ended and David, tragically, hasn’t taken the time to mature or iron out any wrinkles in his famously grating personality. He’s still the same old buffoon (at one point, he breaks out an offensive “Chinaman” impression in an effort to give Asians the spotlight “for once”), except he’s now working as a traveling salesman, selling tampons to bored men in suits and, when he’s not on the road, he’s messing around at his cubicle, annoying his perpetually furrow-browed co-workers. David’s always been the unknowing office idiot, but his new associates aren’t nearly as kind and forgiving as his old mates at the Slough paper company (none of whom pop up in the movie, regrettably).
Just as David hasn’t let go of his worst habits, he has yet to shed his dreams of rock stardom: Paying out of his own pocket, he embarks on a tour with a bought band he’s called Foregone Conclusion, a last-ditch effort to catch the eye of a record label and find the fame and fortune he’s always wanted. Naturally, his bandmates view him as a complete crock and only show up for the paycheck, though the band’s resident rapper (Ben Bailey Smith) is slightly more tolerant of David’s tone-deaf remarks.
Gervais again mines all of the humor from the gap between how Brent thinks people perceive him and how they do in reality. He thinks he looks like a rock god when he bites his bottom lip and thrusts his hips forward for a cheap photo shoot when, to everybody else, he looks like an absolute twit. The various, mostly funny gags and one-liners all stem from this core premise, but it’s hard to shake the sense that we’ve seen this stuff before. If there’s a slight difference between this Brent and the one we met in the early aughts, it’s that he’s more deflated and defeated, slowly coming to the realization, as the movie wears on, that no one actually likes him.
This painful path to self-awareness takes precedence over the humor and adds a thick, unwelcome layer of sadness to a movie that most people will likely only be watching for a kick of nostalgia and a few laughs. Gervais aims to make some sort of serious statement about chronic depression that falls flat because the comedy is too tinged with anguish to balance out the equation.
What should have helped lighten the load are the laughably ill-conceived songs Brent’s written for the road, though even they get overwhelmed by Gervais’ pity party. The tunes are actually quite funny, from folk parody “Lady Gypsy” to the inadvertently racist “Equality Street” to the too-offensive-for-words “Native American”. The issue is, you’ll have to look them up on your favorite streaming service to hear them; not a single song is heard in its entirety in the movie, and so most of the jokes in the lyrics are either lost completely or cut short before they can make their full comedic impact.
Gervais’ focus rests squarely on David’s emotional implosion which, while acted and laid out quite well, is so punishing that one wonders whether it was worth checking back in on the poor guy at all. He does find that there are a few folks in his corner at the end of the day, but it’s almost cruel how little we see of them throughout the film. Co-worker Pauline (Jo Hartley) is quite fond of David; she’s as warm as the summer sun, but she’s on screen for just a few fleeting minutes.
The accidental relevancy of David Brent: Life On the Road is the Trump-ian nature of David’s desire to be loved by anyone and everyone. He’ll all but sell the world for a pat on the back, a laugh over a pint, a round of applause. Gervais gives a glimpse into the life of a man with a severe personality disorder that’s startlingly similar to that of the current US President, and from that angle, the film’s sure to be a conversation-starter.