For the sake of some readers I should begin by pointing out that Ricky Gervais’ well-meaning but nightmarish middle manager David Brent was the forerunner for Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, with Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant sitcom The Office running from 2001-2003 before subsequently being remade in the US (the two characters briefly and excruciatingly crossed swords at the beginning of one episode of the American version). Here, 13 years after the UK show ended, we have a ‘further adventures of Brent’ story that finds the protagonist attempting to jack in his current job as a sales rep in order to pursue his dream of being a rock n’roll star, though in typical Gervais style the film is packed with failure and disillusionment, ending on the kind of bittersweet note that helped to make The Office so popular with audiences in the first place.
Life On The Road was written and directed by Gervais, and it’s noticable that former co-writer Merchant is not involved in any way, while none of the members of the original cast – which included Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook, Lucy Davis and Ralph Ineson – have returned for this outing. I wouldn’t suggest for one minute that Gervais has undervalued their contribution to the original series, but their absence is sorely missed, with too much weight being placed on the Brent character (and thus Gervais himself) to provide the audience with laughs as a result. And yet this awful man – with his ability to embarrass himself, draw the disdain of others, conjure up a faux pas or blurt out an offensive comment seemingly out of nowhere – remains one of the funniest and well-drawn sitcom characters in recent memory, and thus there are scenes here that are very amusing indeed, particularly those set within the office of his new employer Lavichem. However there are also entire periods that are 10 or 15 minutes long where jokes fail to land and the audience’s silence is deafening, while Ben Bailey Smith (aka rapper Doc Brown) as Brent’s on-stage sidekick is the only main cast member called upon to raise a few extra chuckles. The burden on Gervais eventually begins to show.
The idea of a band touring the less-glamorous-than-pretty-much-anywhere highways and byways of England is milked for all it’s worth, with near-empty venues, gigs that are just a handful of miles away from the previous night’s concert and anodyne, identikit business hotels providing a suitably naff backdrop. There is some fun to be had with the songs – sometimes offensive, often inappropriate, always cringeworthy – but the on-the-road construct swiftly runs out of steam, and even with a running time around the 90 minute mark the film eventually feels like a bit of a slog, with only a few secondary characters of note (and even one or two of those, such as Mandeep Dhillon’s receptionist, feel rote and familiar). Still, the writer/director/star does at least put a lot of effort into his favourite trick of raising the audience’s discomfort to barely-tolerable levels, and it’s interesting to see how far he’s willing to go in terms of pushing Brent’s inherent tragedy to the limit here. I also admire Gervais’ decision to try something a little bit different with his character, and when all is said and done I laughed more during the first act of David Brent: Life On The Road than I have during most other recent comedies that I’ve seen (caveat: I haven’t seen many). Ultimately, though, it’s wildly inconsistent in terms of when the laughs arrive, and it’s yet another case of an excellent TV comedy show being ill-suited to the feature length treatment and thus failing to make a successful transition to the big screen.
Directed by: Ricky Gervais.
Written by: Ricky Gervais.
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Jo Hartley, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon.
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin.
Editing: Gary Dollner.
Music: Ricky Gervais, Andy Burrows, Ben Bailey Smith.
Running Time: 88 minutes.