Few moments in recent television have been as monumentally ground-breaking as the 2001 BBC “mockumentary” sitcom The Office. I won’t rehash the history here, but low ratings and (at the time) an atypical setup made the show a hard sell to audiences. Enter the DVD box set, which made the entire series accessible far beyond BBC Two, and exposure on the “social media of then” (i.e. word-of-mouth) eventually made The Office a worldwide smash, which led to the popular US remake and Hollywood stardom for a few of its stars, most notably creator Ricky Gervais.
As DVD binge-watching gave way to Netflix and Chill, it’s only appropriate Gervais continue his relationship with the streaming giant by returning to his most iconic creation with David Brent: Life on the Road, a full-length feature designed for easy watching at home (after a quick stop in BBC theaters). This is actually the second feature between Gervais and Netflix, after last year’s tepid media satire “Special Correspondents”, though it fares much better.
On The Office, David Brent was an interminable chore, the personification of every ‘bad boss’ most of us have to endure. Bureaucracy, for all its charm, has a funny way of promoting such people to positions of power over others, with each new pissant inoculated from any responsibility thanks to mindless policy and paperwork. How appropriate, given David Brent’s position at Wernham Hogg’s paper company in Slough. Watching someone like David Brent inflict himself on others, on TV, was funny. Having to live and work with someone like Brent, well…that’s something else entirely.
Therein lay the problem: whether you’ll find this revived David Brent funny or interminable will largely depend on your tolerance of Ricky Gervais. Love or hate him, the comedian has become an acquired taste, that rare spice that doesn’t work with every flavor. On The Office, he was only part of the ensemble, like a shark on the prey you could avoid. Here, we have undiluted Brent, front and center, his rougher edges free to cut and maim without much restraint.
The plot is actually a thin rehash of a fabulous premise; Brent, deciding he needs to take one last chance at stardom, cashes in retirement and maxes out credit cards to bring his old band, Foregone Conclusion (whose entire lineup, minus Brend, has been replaced) on the road in a bid to snag a record contract. Apart from being a leader of men and a world-class entertainer, Brent has always longed for the approval of others, and the best way to win that is being where he belong: on the stage.
If the setup sounds familiar, it should, because it’s exactly the same one used in The Office Christmas Special’s epilogue, which saw David Brent spending his entire earnings from the “documentary” creating a painful cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (look it up). It’s also worth noting that Gervais has never entirely given up the David Brent persona, so this is really less a ‘return’ than a feature-film realization of the persona, not unlike Steve Coogan’s own creation Alan Partridge.
Gervais’ short-lived Derek (also on Netflix), a bizarre drama-comedy showcasing a maybe-possibly mentally-challenged careworker at a struggling nursing home, seems to have influenced this older, just-as-wise iteration of Brent. The same awkward mix of documentary-styled cringe-humor laced with saccharine sweetness imbues every frame, right up to the crass racism, body shaming, and sexual humor. Your own tolerance for this type of setup will determine whether you find this funny or not (I’m firmly in the former camp), but after fifteen years of training kids to find anything remotely ‘offensive’ as signs of the Apocalypse, I’m anxious to see just how emotionally damaging this stuff can seem in our sterilized culture.
An early nod to his now-employment as a traveling sales rep for a bathroom supply company brings back the office environment, though it’s noted this world is much more cruel, less funny than before. Thankfully, it’s not long before the drudgery of sales and the “cameras” follow Brent’s journey as he hires musicians, books gigs, and experiences life for a month “on the road”.
While David Brent isn’t nearly as likable or innocent a character as Derek, unearned sympathy (as we last saw in the Christmas Specials) brings the character some last-minute justification that feels as odds with everything we’ve just seen beforehand.
So is Life on the Road an actual, proper follow-up to The Office? Yes and no, but that’s a good thing. Gervais (also directing) tries to retain the mockumentary-style framing and pacing of the original, yet steady shots and multi-angle closeups suggest the gimmick was largely abandoned at some point. The upgrade to widescreen, HD-quality video removes some of the intimacy that extreme, claustrophobic closeups could elicit from Brent’s suffering co-workers and other hapless extras. Here, characters occupy smaller statures in wide-angle scenes that are, thanks to well-used helicopter cameras, gorgeously shot. In short, the film LOOKS great, yet something feels lost in the transition.
Gervais goes the extra mile to have this cast mimic the original blank stares, awkward silences, and head-turning “did he just say…?” reactions of the original series, though here Brent’s way of alienating others is often played as cruel. Brent drains his band account and pension to fund his dream, paying studios musicians to pad his slightly delusional dream of breaking into the music business, only to be totally disrespected in the most humiliating way possible. Not that his nutty behavior doesn’t merit some of it, but having to pay the band (by the hour) to have a few drinks with him is pathetic.
We learn that, after the original show’s fame faded, Brent had a mental breakdown, checked into a mental hospital and became addicted to Prozac, becoming obese in the process. It’s not PC to laugh at this setup, as it’s included to justify what we already knew about him, but it does reveal that Gervais’ continuing effort to infuse real-world pathos to sitcom characters is intact.
Also, credit goes to Gervais and crew (whether artistically or contractually) for not bringing any of his Office co-stars into the mix, either via awkward cameos or subtle mentions. Truthfully, only a handful of them were able to take advantage of the show’s popularity anyway, though it’s interesting to note both Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis (Tim and Dawn) have found roles in competing comic book shared universes, Marvel and DC.
Let’s talk about the songs in the film, most of which are surprisingly catchy (no surprise, given we’ve heard versions before on The Office and online). Some are actually penned by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, remade here with Gervais’ actual touring musicians Andy Burrows and rapper (and co-star) Dom Johnson – see the faux reggae jam “Equality Street” for Comic Relief. None of the tunes can match the satirical brilliance of, say, Spinal Tap (“Sex Farm Woman” is a staple), but it’s all in good fun, especially when you consider Gervais own career “started” with an aborted music effort (see Seona Dancing).
To be honest, it’s difficult to see where reality begins and ends here, and to dissect what’s going on would require the patience of a saint to penetrate the Inception-like layering. I suspect most won’t bother digging too deeply into what Gervais presents here, given the so-so execution of the material, but at least he’s trying. The Office (UK version) remains brilliant, and nothing is likely to change that (the US version, on the other hand, will not age well). David Brent: Life on the Road doesn’t embarrass or tarnish that legacy, and hardcore fans will probably find themselves laughing at the right bits.