Director: Ricky Gervais
Runtime: 96 minutes
Being such a huge fan of seminal British sitcom The Office, I went into the screening of David Brent: Life on the Road with a greater sense of trepidation than expectation, fearing that Ricky Gervais’s ingeniously crafted wanker was destined to suffer the same mundane big-screen fate as Absolutely Fabulous divas Edina and Patsy.
After seeing it, I’m not sure whether that came true or not.
And I think that’s the point.
There’s nothing funny about David Brent. But that’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. Fans of the character will no doubt be relieved that after fourteen years away from our screens, he’s still the same bumbling, awkward and wildly inappropriate social outcast that hooked viewers as the boss of paper company Wernham Hogg in The Office.
Now ‘one of the boys’, working as a rep selling sanitary products, he uses his leave to chase his dream of becoming a rock star by hiring a band and going on a so-called ‘tour’. But in typical Brent fashion, the venues are within a few miles of his house, nobody turns up, the band can’t stand him, and he ends up back where he started. While the band members and his rapper sidekick Dom Johnson (played brilliantly by Doc Brown) attract attention from record labels, Brent seems to be the only one that doesn’t realise how pathetic he looks.
Not only is the character authentic in its revival, so too is the method of story-telling that made The Office such an influential show. The ‘mockumentary’ style allows for extended periods of silence and emphasis on subtle gestures and facial expressions, which play to Gervais’s comedic strengths, while the handheld camera gives believability to the unimaginably cringe-worthy moments that he manages to create with little more than a word or a look.
Subtlety is the genius of his most well-known works, and Life on the Road follows suit. Never one to settle for cheap laughter, Gervais always treads the fine line between expertly underplaying his hand and not giving the audience quite enough. But a lack of interesting supporting characters tends to push this film towards the latter. In The Office, Gareth, Tim, Dawn and co. were perfect folly for Brent’s uncomfortable behaviour, but when he is the sole focus of nearly every shot, the awkwardness starts to become somewhat laborious.
Most would argue Life on the Road isn’t as humourous Gervais’s previous outings, and I would tend to agree, but the film feels like a rom-com without the romance more than a pure comedy, with the poignant moments often trumping the light-hearted ones. Pathos has always been a big part of his work, and this film is as heartfelt as ever, mainly due to the line between Gervais and Brent becoming increasingly blurry. It seems like he is using the mask of David to confess his own insecurities and doubts, referencing many aspects of his own life – including being an unsuccessful pop singer before starting his acting career.
Life on the Road may not be laugh-out-loud funny – but it doesn’t aim to be. Fans of The Office will most likely be satisfied with Brent’s comeback, even though he may leave a bit to be desired for first-time viewers. Just don’t tell him that. He won’t listen.