When David Brent: Life on the Road is firing on all cylinders it reaches comedic heights few films in the genre can match. Unfortunately for every moment that leaves you short of breath from laughing too much there’s two gags that fail to meet their target. Writer, director and star Ricky Gervais isn’t content with a film comprised merely of jokes and does make attempts to elevate the material into something a little more substantial, especially in the third act, though this ultimately proves to be a poorly written stretch. As a whole Life on the Road is a hit and miss comedy with little to offer past a few well executed laughs.
The satirical edge that made The Office such a landmark television programme is gone, instead Life on the Road is a pure character study of that show’s most iconic character. David Brent is somewhat of a tragic figure, a man who has failed to achieve his dreams and has a pathological need to be liked, a desire that is hindered by his unbelievable obnoxiousness. Ricky Gervais slots back into the character with ease, everything about Brent that you love returns here from his silly little laugh to his cringe inducing ability to make a fool of himself (even his signature dance moves make an appearance). Unsurprisingly Brent is the star of the show, the film is named for him after all, with none of the supporting cast really making much of an impression and generally failing to generate many laughs.
Gervais’ examination of Brent is largely rudimentary, at times you get the sense that Life on the Road believes itself much more heartfelt and touching than it really is. The co-creater of The Office and frequent collaborator with Gervais, Stephen Merchant, plays no part in this film which does show. The genuinely sweet core of the original series is missing for most of this spinoff feature and when Gervais attempts to insert it, in the third act, it feels a little too on the noise. Every emotional beat is directly spelt out to the audience and side characters bizarrely go from detesting Brent (to the point of refusing to even get a pint with the guy) to declaring that they actually really like him in a matter of minutes. It’s clear this is all in an effort to give the film a happy end, particularly as Gervais has said that this is him done with the character, but it all feels very fake and unnaturally neat.
Narratively Life on the Road is as basic as possible. The film sees Brent taking a few weeks off his job as a sales rep to embark on a tour with his unsuccessful band Foregone Conclusion in the hopes of landing a record deal. This is briskly set up within the first five minutes and afterwards there’s nothing else to see and the small story beats that do unfold are oh so predictable. This lack of invention really hurts the film’s pacing, despite a running time of just over an hour and half by the time the credits roll you’ll feel as if you’ve been watching Foregone Conclusion’s unsuccessful tour for hours upon hours. It’s the long stretches that pass without so much as a snigger from the audience that are the main culprit for suffocatingly slow pace.
The film is least funny when it focuses on Brent’s bandmates’ dislike for the titular character. Unfortunately the original members of Foregone Conclusion have either been locked up or moved on with their lives so Brent is forced to hire studio musicians as bandmates. Talking head interviews are used to give their insight as the tour progresses and generally it’s just them moaning about how awkward they find Brent. Sure what they’re saying is true but you can’t help but feel bad for the guy. A scene in which he literally pays them £25 an hour to have a drink with him in a bar doesn’t produce laughs instead it’s just depressing. Much of Gervais’ work can be classified as mean spirited and when Life on the Road veers into this territory it’s not even close to funny but instead is just miserable.
Doc Brown, who featured in a few charity sketches with Brent, returns as Dom Johnson, a young rapper that Brent is supposed to be managing but really is holding back. The character is disappointingly bland and really adds nothing to the film, aside from a very mediocre rap performance towards the end. This is true of almost the whole supporting cast, in fact it’s only Tom Basden, who plays Dan the tour manager, who makes a real impact on the audience mainly because his arc with Brent feels the most genuine. Brent is capable of carrying a whole film himself, such is the richness of his character, but it’s a shame than none of the cast of The Office return or at least a few strong secondary characters aren’t established.
Despite the truckload of issues Life on the Road is frequently very funny. The mockumentary style allows Brent to address the audience directly in some hilarious monologues and one towards to the end that is actually quite touching. Brent’s often political incorrect songs are a real highlight as well with tunes about why you shouldn’t make fun of the disabled and the plight of the native Americans being a hoot. I’d definitely recommend seeking out “Lady Gypsy” online afterwards as the song and accompanying music video are downright comedic genius. Life on the Road is certainly funny enough to be worthy of your attention, it’s just a shame that it’s never amounts to anything more than pleasingly humorous and often it struggles to even be that.
Those that have been eagerly awaiting the return of David Brent will find enough here to satisfying their appetite for the foolish former regional manager of a paper merchants in Slough. However if you’re hoping for something as multi layered and influential as the original television series that inspired this film you’ll be sorely let down. David Brent: Life on the Road struggles frequently with consistency, it can be downright hilarious but just as often it’s depressingly drab, unfortunately it has to settle for being a frustratingly mixed bag.
David Brent: Life on the Road