David Brent: Life on the Road (2016) – Movie Review

David Brent: Life on the Road
Directed by: Ricky Gervais
Written by: Ricky Gervais
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Andy Burrows & Jo Hartley
Music: Ricky Gervais, Chris Martin & Andy Burrows
Certificate: 15
Release Date: August 19th 2016

I have a strange relationship with Ricky Gervais as a performer (outside of, y’know, the restraining order). I think he’s a talented guy and he’s been involved with a lot of shows that I really like such as “The Office”, “Extras”, “Life’s Too Short” but he’s not a good leading-man. Which is fine, but he doesn’t seem to really understand that as he often plasters himself front and centre on everything he can, essentially forcing the shows/films he’s in to put its weakest foot forward. For example, how can anyone reasonable make the argument that “The Ricky Gervais Show” is actually ABOUT Ricky Gervais when it’s a three-way podcast and Karl Pilkington gets most of the audio-time?

Also, the episode he wrote and starred in for “The Simpsons: Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife” is, bar-none, the single worst episode of “The Simpsons” ever made. I just want that on the record.

One of the more egregious examples of his dominating presense is with the British sit-com “The Office” which ran from 2001 to 2003 in which Gervais plays the boss at the titular office; David Brent. Despite being the least interesting, least engaging and least entertaining character in the show, he’s given way too much screentime and ultimately detracting from the show (a show that I otherwise really enjoy due to the rest of the cast). So imagine my scepticism when it’s announced that Brent will return in a spin-off movie centred around his character with Gervais directing, writing and starring with no involvement from anyone else responsible for “The Office”. Can Gervais/Brent’s persistence pay off with one final gig or is this a musical tour that should be unplugged?
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It’s been 15 years since David Brent (Gervais) was let go from his old job at Wernham-Hogg during the BBC2 documentary “The Office” and he’s now working as a sales rep for a bathroom supply company in Lavichem. However, Brent still has dreams of being a successful musician so he decides to take a month of unpaid leave from work as well as taking money out of his savings and his pension to go on a musical roadtrip with his band “Foregone Conclusion”. With supporting rap artist Dom (Smith) along for the ride, he plays to empty bars with bandmates despise who him and his music isn’t very good, but Brent has put his livlihood on the line to try and make this work.

While ‘David Brent: Life on the Road‘ is filmed in the same mockumentary style as its predecessor “The Office” it’s worth addressing that other than the character of David Brent there are absolutely no ties to the original series. None of the original cast show up, there are no callbacks and very little references given and this is very much a standalone story which can be viewed without having watched a single episode of the original series. However, those who have watched “The Office”, especially it’s very sobering final moments in the Series 2 finale “Interview” which shows Brent being made redundant and seeing his obnoxious exterior deteriorate, will be disappointed to know that Brent has not changed at all over the course of 15 years apart from getting more awkward and more desperate.
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Now, I understand that the base appeal of a continuation is being able to see your favourite characters as you loved them. But the when you take into account the way “The Office” ended, the way David Brent was characterised and his situation at the beginning of ‘David Brent: Life on the Road‘, it feels counter-intuitive for Brent to be the same guy he always was, or at least having his worst traits be exacerbated. It actually seems to go against the ending of “The Office”, which is a huge shame. But anyway, I understand that my trepidation with this movie is almost entirely subjective here, but the issue with Brent as a character and the reason I just couldn’t sympathise with him as a character (despite the film’s constant attempts to make you feel sorry for him) is because his misfortunes are almost entirely self-inflicted.

And I’m not just talking about his terrible songs being a factor in his lack of success, but the way he callously handles his finances by paying for hotels and private buses for his band-mates so they can have the ultimate tour “experience”…despite them gigging less than a half an hour drive from where everybody lives, meaning that there’s no need for the frivolous waste of money. So when the movie tries to recreate the “Interview” ending by giving Brent a down-to-earth, genuine moment when he opens up about how terrible his finances are, it’s hard to feel sympathetic. Not to mention the fact that while David Brent is well-meaning, the fact that he’s so obsessed with “dad-humour” and trying to be the “cool” and “hip” guy that everybody loves despite that approach having never ever ever ever worked shows that this character has no interest in changing or growing.

So why would we want to spend 96 minutes watching him fail while at the same time being expected to feel sorry for him?
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There are some moments that work in ‘David Brent: Life on the Road‘, but 90% of the jokes are “cringe humour”. There’s a very good chance that you’ll spend most of your time watching this film through while peaking through your fingers, or squirming in your seat over how embarrassing the situations David and co. get into. If that’s your type of humour you’ll probably get a lot out of the movie, but that approach does have a limit and it’s often built on the back of a sympathetic or endearing character getting into these situations and as we’ve established, Brent is not that character.

Now, I don’t hate the movie and I’m aware that a lot of the issues I have with the film are entirely subjective (though, I must stress that I loved “The Office” TV series) but it’s hard to escape how desperate and reaching the film is at almost every point. It tries SOOOO hard to make you feel sorry for David Brent whilst trying SOOOOO hard to make you wince or make you laugh at the overly terrible songs that he writes. The film doesn’t have much time for character beats or connective tissue and despite decent performances from the rest of the cast members such as Ben Bailey Smith, Jo Hartley and Mandeep Dhillon, they don’t seem to undergo much of an arc and any changes to their characters take place entirely off-screen. The band members spend the first 80 minutes of the movie saying how much they hate being a part of the tour and how much they despise David, but then at the end they’re talking about how much fun they had. That’s one issue with Gervais as a creator, he actively TELLS you how you’re supposed to feel about characters and what emotions you should have and very rarely does he actually earn those feelings.
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The film does have a made-for-TV feeling and that’s mainly due to keeping the mockumentary style of “The Office”. It’s a deliberate style choice, but it really doesn’t feel like the type of movie that justifies a big-screen experience in any sort of way. Outside the U.K. the film is being released through Netflix and it feels like that’s where it belongs. There’s one incredibly cheap moment where David shoots a woman in the face with a T-shirt cannon and it’s such a poorly, cheaply handled piece of slapstick that it made me wonder why they even bothered. Seriously, one shot has Brent mis-firing the cannon, then it cuts to the woman reacting to the impact of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING and then falling over. Seriously, how do you mess that up? It’s a mockumentary, just cut to reaction shots or just show her falling over. You can actually see this moment happen in the trailer and it plays out the same way in the movie.

Still, it’s an (mostly) effective, minimal style that works here and the film does go all-out in regards to its music with Gervais, Chris Martin and Andy Burrows putting together an extensive original soundtrack full of terrible, cringey tracks. Clearly a lot of thought has been put into these tracks such as “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”, “Native American” and “Don’t Cry It’s Christmas” but the music doesn’t get a lot of space in the mockumentary format and takes a backseat to the minimal story.
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David Brent: Life on the Road‘ feels like a misguided attempt at the limelight on the part of Ricky Gervais. As he directs, writes and stars but with no one else from “The Office” involved in any capacity and the new supporting cast having practically nothing to do, this movie lives or dies on the character of David Brent and he’s just not that interesting or empathetic a lead. Any goodwill the character had was spent 15 years ago as a supporting player and it’s more disappointing when you start watching this mockumentary and realise that he hasn’t learned anything or changed. It’s not laugh-free and the music is oddly ambitious but it feels like there’s no reason to pursue this film outside of an impulse Netflix watch, or you’re a huge fan of Gervais’ solo, cringe humour. This is a tour that will likely disappoint fans and newcomers alike.

I give ‘David Brent: Life on the Road‘ 1 and a half stars out of 5.

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Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 26th Jan 17