Film Review: David Brent: Life on the Road

In this too-little and yet too-much slice of TV-ready cringe comedy, Ricky Gervais catches up with his unctuous “The Office” character, who’s trying to fulfill his rock-star dreams but just keeps digging deeper holes.
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The comic magic of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent character from the original British version of “The Office” was that even though he was a preening and unfunny self-styled life of the party, he was forever oblivious to his own horrific nature. That left his co-workers ducking and covering in his company, ignoring as much of his forced badinage as they could without letting him realize just how hated he was. One issue with David Brent: Life on the Road, Gervais’ strained and too-late follow-up to the series that made his name, is that at some point Brent starts to realize just how friendless and bleak his life truly is. That’s a weight which the film’s slender structure cannot come close to safely bearing.

Gervais, who wrote and directed the film without the assistance of his “The Office”co-writer Stephen Merchant, is building off his 2013 web series “Learn Guitar with David Brent,” in which the salesman indulges his love of performing and pontificating. Of course, just as nobody who worked for Brent back when he was an office manager actually wanted to work for him, now that he’s an erstwhile pop star, nobody is in the least interested in hearing him perform.

When we pick up with Brent, he’s come down in the world a bit. He was let go from his old job for everything that transpired after the airing of the BBC2 documentary whose filming provided “The Office” with an excuse for all its characters to unload right at the camera—a nice meta quirk which this film could use a little more of—and is now just another sales rep, flogging tampons. But Brent’s ego, even after the public humiliation that followed the documentary’s broadcast and his being hated by most of his co-workers, can’t be deflated. He still imagines himself a “triple threat”: “music, comedy, wisdom.”  Sadly, none of those characteristics are in evidence when he takes a few weeks off work to tour with his reconstituted band, Foregone Conclusion.

For anybody familiar with Brent, it will come as no surprise that not only do his bandmates despise him (they force him to drive behind their tour bus in his car, and will only get a drink with him if he pays for their time…and the drinks), his audiences are no friendlier. His adult-contemporary anthems are epics of cringe, particularly when trying to get “funky” or singing a song about the disabled (“Please be kind to those with feeble minds”). The “tour” is really a forced march into oblivion, with Brent blowing through his cashed-out pension in order to play bad music to empty rooms. Even the band’s slightly more friendly rapper Dom (Ben Bailey Smith, younger brother of novelist Zadie Smith), succinctly identified by Brent as “my black friend,” usually can’t be bothered to give him the time of day.

For fans of embarrassment humor, there is plenty to watch here, albeit between your fingers while wincing in fear of what head-slapper Brent and his disparate musical influences (New Romantics, Michael Bublé) will throw out next. But the feature format creates a couple of problems. The first is by breaking Brent out into the larger world, where he doesn’t have the saving grace of being able to command people’s attention merely because they work for him. Out in that larger world, Brent’s smug yet insecure grin and wheezy laugh, juvenile neediness, and inability to intuit everybody’s blinding lack of interest in his lame and frequently offensive jokes becomes something of a liability for the film. As one bandmate says, “David is the personification of all our most embarrassing moments.”

In “The Office,” because Brent’s position meant he could command attention, the comedy became about everybody’s maneuverings around his ego and insecurities. Here, the situation has changed. He’s paying the musicians to go on tour with him, but they don’t bother trying to be friendly with him. So that leaves Gervais having Brent take it on the chin in scene after scene as he burns through his money or pontificates (“just writing a song about the plight of the Native Americans”) in an only half-funny self-destructive spiral, that frozen and part-confused smile never leaving his face.

If we were in the hands of Christopher Guest, there would be gold in the satire. But one Foregone Conclusion song is just as terrible as the next, and in almost exactly the same manner. Gervais’ command of Brent’s character is such that he’s still able to grind some humor out of this stretched-thin scenario. But by leaving Brent without a partner in crime and nothing in front of him but disaster, the laughs dry up long before Brent’s tour and Gervais’ film have finished with us.

Click here for cast and crew information. David Brent: Life on the Road opens in select theatres and launches on Netflix on Feb. 10.