If you were into TV mockumentary The Office you’ll enjoy David Brent: Life on the Road, but creator Ricky Gervais is unlikely to win many new fans with this follow-up.
Ricky Gervais’ decision to resurrect David Brent, the excruciating lead character from his acclaimed, ground-breaking 2001 TV mockumentary, The Office, in a movie 15 years down the track is fraught with risk. The Office has to rank with Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, and Little Britain (open to argument on that one) as one of the great landmark Brit TV comedies. Gervais has raised the bar pretty damned high for himself, then. Does he clear it in David Brent: Life on the Road?
Nope. That’s the short answer. But fans of The Office need not despair (I am certainly one, by the way – factor that in). There’s enough laughs here to save the show. Did I say laughs? Well, I spent most of the movie half-smiling/half-grimacing – it’s David Brent, ferchrissake! The full-blooded chuckles came on the occasions Gervais pushed the bad taste/PIC boundaries. eg: Brent uses the “N” word when drunkenly addressing his coloured rapper mate Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown). Then there’s his song supposedly championing the disabled. More on that below.
The set-up: Brent is now working as a salesman for a sanitary products company, but can’t let go of his rocknroll dream. Like many a paunchy greying ex-rocker in mid-life crisis he dreams of “getting the band back together” – but unlike most of them (thankfully), he does something about it. Taking hols from work, he puts all his capital, much of which comprises maturing insurance policies (very un-rocknroll!), into hiring a band of crack session musos and going on the road to showcase his songs in a series of “comeback” gigs. As it happens, “on the road” is more like just down the road, but this is Brent’s dream and he’s livin’ it any way he can. Even if he has to pay the band to drink with him after gigs!
Here’s a surprise. One of the highlights of the film is Brent’s/Gervais’ music. Musically his songs are generally pretty OK, as are his vocals. You get the feeling that Gervais is not far removed from his Brent character in fancying himself rockin’ on stage, that behind the piss-taking is an old fart who can’t let go of his young identity. Fuck knows, there’re a lot of us around.
Indeed, this is his saving grace – as embarrassing as he is, and as hopelessly disconnected his self-image from the often painful reality, he’s relatable.
The lyrics of Brent’s songs provide most of the comedy highlights. The one that had the cinema crowd chortling, not least of them me, is entitled “Please Don’t Make Fun Of The Disabled”. Focusing on a wheelchair-bound young guy in the crowd, Brent sings plaintively:
Whether mental in the head, or mental in the legs, doesn’t mean their sorrow doesn’t show…
Please be kind to the ones with feeble minds, help the awkward through a door.
You know you shouldn’t laugh and this, of course, is precisely why it is so funny – the fart-in-church effect. There’s an edge of hysteria in the mix, a nervous forbidden-humour element that adds a certain shrillness to yer chortling.
It’s hard to get away from the sense, though, that Gervais is re-hashing The Office. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, in fact not much new going on at all, except a far-too-prevalent David Brent mannerism – an anxious whinnying wheeze of a half-laugh that he inflicts on us throughout. Very irritating.
On the plus side, Gervais manages to wring some real pathos out of his Brent character towards the end. This derives from the realisation that for all DB’s self-delusion and painfully forced bonhomie, there’s a sad and lonely little boy inside who wants nothing more than to be accepted and liked. But more than this, Brent has a go at realising his dream, and however unrealistic that might be, however foolhardy financially, however doomed to failure, it takes courage to go out on a limb as he does, and that’s worthy of respect. One of his female workmates thinks so, anyway.
Not a bad note to end on, even if things take a turn towards the sentimental. If this is to be David Brent’s swansong (and hopefully Gervais intends it to be), it’s cheering to think the bloke might just end up getting the girl and relaxing a little.
Movie website: http://au.eonefilms.com/films/david-brent-life-on-the-road
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