“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” comments one of the band members on David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) road trip. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” Writer/director/star Gervais is acutely aware of the thin line between his personal fourth wall and the audience, indirectly acknowledging the existing fanbase of the BBC mockumentary series The Office and anticipating people who wonder if it needed a feature-length sequel at all. With DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD, Gervais adds new layers to his most enduring creation, but perhaps loses a few in the format shift as well.
It’s been fifteen years since The Office, and David Brent is now a sales rep rather than the boss. Ridiculed by some of his coworkers due to his insufferable workplace antics, he goes on tour with his band Foregone Conclusion as a last-ditch attempt at success. Using his own pension to fund the series of under-attended concerts, he is joined by rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) and a group of musicians held hostage by Brent’s singular personality. The “where are they now” documentary rapidly becomes a chronicle of a man in a mid-life spiral, and at its best, the film is a heartfelt tip of the hat to anybody struggling to overcome low points in their life.
Having filtered the Gervais/Brent persona through his award ceremony performances and the genuinely beautiful Derek, the undiluted David Brent is a shock to the system. The deliberately cringeworthy moments come thick and fast, be it through racist office antics or Brent-penned songs “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds” and “Native American.” Rather than being an easily mockable figure surrounded by buffoons who are otherwise decent humans, there’s a more cynical edge to Brent’s life. “It’s mainly worse because the world’s worse,” observes Brent’s sympathetic colleague Pauline (Jo Hartley), the closest thing to a love interest in this film.
Issues with DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD don’t come necessarily from the overall tone, but instead from the format they are delivered in. Shot with the same faux documentary style as the original series, the humour of the uncomfortable is familiar, although we are far more used to having them portioned out in half-hour doses. The bubble of this otherwise self-contained feature allows no breaks or escape, locking us into the tour bus for every painful mile of the voyage. Like a car crash, we can’t look away, but the squirming of the audience around you is ever present. Unlike the film-conscious Alan Partridge, perhaps Brent is simply not built for the feature form.
Yet there are any number of moments one can point to that are alternatively side-splittingly hilarious or cuttingly close to the emotional bone. This is not the same David Brent as the one we saw over a decade ago, and in telling moments we learn of his breakdown, his weight gain, his suicide ideation. Convinced that people don’t like him, his onstage antics suddenly make sense, and a repeat viewing would give a completely different spin to the whole saga.
Ultimately Gervais redeems his David Brent once again, just as he did with The Office Christmas Special‘s emotional finale. Indeed, things wrap up a little bit too neatly by the end, asking the audience to make a big leap to get to the sweet ending. Gervais and Brent prove that they have something more in common than just a face, as Brent declares through tears that he “can live without being a success. But I couldn’t live without trying.” As Gervais makes a noble attempt at giving his first big success an ending of sorts, it’s the words of his bandmate that sum up the whole experience: “What resilience from a human being.”
2016 | UK | DIR: Ricky Gervais | WRITER: Ricky Gervais | CAST: Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Andy Burrows, Tom Basden, Jo Hartley | RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: eOne (AUS) | RATING: ★★★