DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD (Entertainment One)
Dir, Script. Ricky Gervais
Cast: Ricky Gervais
Plot: Britain’s most hapless boss returns, in order to become an equally hapless rockstar.
So, regular readers/viewers/people with far too little to do if they’re actually reading what I have to say, time to own up. Last review I did, couple of days ago, I may have admitted to completely losing my professionalism at the sight of Nerve. Now, I am faced with the rather embarrassing predicament of having to confess that I have absolutely no idea what I think of David Brent: Life On The Road. Bearing in mind (slight insight into how TWIM gets made), that I saw Ricky Gervais’s new attempt to regain relevance on Sunday, and I will publish this on Wednesday – so I’ve most certainly had time to consider the pros and cons of this movie. But its not that: fact is, I can’t work out what the wider world is going to think. In my mind, its the most polarising movie I’ve seen in quite some time: a film that will populate best of the year lists, a film that will populate worst of the year lists. Credit to Gervais, he has crafted a far deeper movie than I expected, nor even believed capable of him: not only is this movie quite funny, its surprisingly poignant, incisive and genuinely has something to say. I could even muster enough points to argue that David Brent: Life On The Road is some kind of twisted masterpiece.
Let me play Devil’s Advocate against myself – not like I’ve been thinking about this movie since the moment the credits rolled. For some context, I believe that the original Office, the BBC Two sitcom that gave birth to Ricky Gervais’s alter-ego (maybe even real ego) David Brent, is maybe the most influential sitcom of this century. The hyper-realistic depiction of workplace life, as well as the docu-soap, shaky cam style, has crept its way into major Hollywood blockbusters (Jason Bourne), Academy Award nominees (The Big Short), and the plethora of international spin-offs, Steve Carell screaming ‘NOOOOOOOO!’ at the top of his lungs just one of many. But this is not an Office film: Gervais has stated it point-blank, and there are no returning characters from the series – this is Brent brought back from the cold for another reason. If you’ve ever seen The Office, you’ll know a lot of the show was filled with Brent playing to camera, making pitiful attempts to appear as a brilliant boss while considering himself a renaissance man, talented in philosophy and the arts – of course, everything he said backfired. Fast-forward to 2016, and David Brent hasn’t just had a midlife crisis, he’s had a midlife nuclear holocaust, and has paid for himself to go on a high-powered, debauchery-fuelled rock tour, which is really a small sojourn around the Berkshire area. In the fictional world Gervais has placed Brent, he is remembered incredibly vaguely as a complete idiot for his antics on The Office. Unfortunately, absolutely none of Brent’s desperation to play to camera has gone in the meantime.
Word of warning: if you get uncomfortable in social situations…you are going to see exactly how not to have a normal conversation. Brent says and does things that, in this era of political correctness and a culture in which we should rather commit seppuku than trigger somebody are truly shocking. Brent does a small comic routine in his office in which he plays a Chinese man called Ho Lee Fuk. He makes enough sexist jokes to fill a sexism awareness pamphlet. His defences, obviously overstated to camera, only make matters worse. Watching David Brent try to have a normal conversation, with a human being, while we know Brent can see the camera, is painful. I think that your reaction to those scenes, and they are the main source of ‘humour’ that Gervais implements here, will probably be the yardstick for whether Life On The Road is going to sit well with you. If you think David Brent is a straight up twat in real life, you’ll hate it – if you think it’s a façade hiding the less bombastic man, then you’re going to find this a very interesting watch I think. And Gervais has to be complimented for putting Brent in front of the audience, showing every single one of his many flaws, and leaving you to judge the man that he is for yourself.
The transition into film from TV, or any other medium for that matter, can often be patchy and success in adapting works is usually chequered – especially if there’s a long distance of time between the shift, more than a decade in this case. Fortunately, Gervais has slipped back into this role like a hand into a surgical glove; its so clinical that you worry that he’s done it too well. The lines between man and manchild in Gervais’s case have always been blurred, but Life On The Road does give the impression that Ricky Gervais might be David Brent, and that Gervais is the alter-ego. Gervais is absolutely perfect in this role, he was born to play it even: Brent minces his way through scenes, trying to catch the camera glare like a dog whose owners have gone to Marbella for a week, attempting relevance and achieving complete social disaster. He doesn’t even look like he fits the plain suits that he wears, nor his stage outfits when fronting his band, a patchwork of paid off session musicians and an aspiring rapper, who all seem to hate him. If (I admit, like me) you think that Brent on camera is a horrifying representation of everything that it is physical to say wrong in any conversation ever had by anyone, but not the real person, then it’s strange to watch. I think Brent is a man who is desperately trying to escape his averageness, so fervently attempting to be something better that he becomes worse by a hundredfold.
Brent doesn’t want to be himself, and I think Ricky Gervais’s script captures Brent’s character with superb sharpness. Perhaps it treats him a little more sympathetically than I think Brent merits, but Gervais gives plenty of reasons for this. Characters make a point that the world is worse than it used to be, that failure is failure and it makes the act of trying in the first place irrelevant, and that to want to be something brilliant is a bad thing. Brent sums it up best himself: ‘I’m surrounded by reps who want to be reps, and I’m a rep who wants to be something else’.The Brent show also has others involved, and Gervais has created some very funny characters to fill the Office-shaped hole left behind. The breakout is Doc Brown, who plays a young rapper signed by Brent, but then placed under his shadow as he attempts to live his rock-star dream. Not only is he genuinely funny, but he’s also genuinely talented as he gets the chance to showcase his rap muscles. The rest of Brent’s band, the abysmally-named Foregone Conclusion, are also nice to watch as they completely shut Brent out of the tour and take the money they’re being offered without giving him any friendship – just having a drink with him is something they need an incentive for. There are also a couple of characters in Brent’s new job, the despondent role of selling ladies toiletries for ‘Lavichem’, in which he and his friend Nigel are constantly bullied and talked down to by their plain as paper colleagues. Jo Hartley plays a workmate who sees through Brent’s smokescreen, and although we don’t see an awful lot of her, she is memorable throughout her scenes. Gervais’s direction (he directs, writes, stars and produces Life On The Road, provoking flashbacks of Tommy Wiseau) is a bit inconsistent, often losing the handheld shake we’ve come to expect from The Office for a more cinematic look, but with no explanation as to why. However, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin makes good use of the handheld style, with a couple of excellently timed quick zooms being highlights.
Its impossible not to feel some sympathy for Brent – he needs to escape the office itself, but his grand dream to become a recording artist gets destroyed at every turn, and we as an audience are forced to watch. And it is like watching a man realizing that he’s stuck doing and representing something that we know he despises entirely, but he pretends to like for the camera. Brent, to some degree, is governed by the lens, controlled by the tripod. And when he lets the call of recognition and attention take over, he alienates everybody around him. The filters through which the media view what it is to be a successful man – wealth, respect, humour, drinking, success with women – are all covered expertly by Gervais, as he has Brent try all of them and fail immediately. But as well as his slip-ups, and the inevitable backtracking that only succeeds in replacing the spade Brent is using to dig his hole with an industrial drill, its equally painful to see the after-effects of the things he does. Brent is a lonely man, a man who is losing purpose before our very eyes, who knows that this is his last chance – he makes it clear that he has no plan B because ‘Failure is not an option’. Once you really delve into the psyche of Brent, and what Gervais has made him represent throughout his time writing for him and playing the character, you begin to realize that Life On The Road is a character study, and a rich one at that. Even the songs are kind of decent, in that middle of the road, Coldplay-lite sort of way (Apparently Chris Martin had a hand in Brent’s songs, which explains why it feels like literally the same chords throughout).
However, as I’ve already said, your enjoyment of this film is almost solely dependent on what you think of Brent by the end, and by extension what you think of Gervais. If you’re coming into this movie expecting a bundle of laughs, you’ll be presented with a trickle of them, instead getting an ocean of cringe-worthy moments. That’s one of my sticking points with this movie as well; as much as Life On The Road does a lot of things you might not expect it would even do, let alone doing them rather decently, it still lacks for me in the fundamental area it has to work in, which is making audiences laugh. And with the way the movie goes, mainly propelled by scenes you have to watch through a gap in your hands as you literally want to run away from the awkwardness, Life On The Road will probably do a better job of turning people off than on. In my case, however, I think Gervais has to be given respect: he does take this movie into territory that is certainly going to be over the line for a lot of people, but to my mind it does serve a purpose, and if like me you think this is a surprisingly rich film on a man’s desperation to be more than ordinary, then you can overlook it in favour of what Gervais accomplishes. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it, but I’ll surely be thinking about it for many more days to come.