It has been over twelve years since Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom, The Office, concluded with a Christmas Special after two highly successful series. In utilising the mockumentary to offer a commentary on the docusoap, and its capacity to turn ordinary people into celebrities overnight, it spawned an iconic character in the form of paper merchant manager David Brent, whose unfulfilled dreams of stardom see him take the opportunity to shine when a camera crew come to film daily life at his workplace, Wernham Hogg. When his awkward attempts at fame go desperately wrong, there is great pathos and sympathy for him, despite his shortcomings. By its conclusion, however, things appear to be looking up for David, and it ends on a positive note of acceptance, hope and humanity.
While we’ve encountered David Brent a number of times since, mainly courtesy of Comic Relief, David Brent: Life on the Road constitutes his big screen debut, and the first in-depth catch-up with the character. Yet again, Brent is being filmed for a documentary, though this isn’t always obvious.
Working as a rep selling domestic and sanitary products, Brent has yet to give up on his dream of stardom. In The Office, his main aim was to show his comedic prowess with music as a sideline, but now, we find him wholly focussed on getting a record deal by reforming his band of old, Foregone Conclusion, of which he is now the only member. The comedy does have an outlet, however, both unintentionally in pieces to camera, and in the form of his office antics which are starkly at odds with those of the rest of his colleagues. That is, with the exception of Nigel (Tom Bennett) who wholeheartedly subscribes to Brent’s farcical performances, questionable gags, and prop based japes. He’s the friend Brent always wanted, minus the idiocy of Gareth Keenan.
The 2016 office is a different place, however, and their fellow workers are colder and more hostile. If the staff of Wernham Hogg showed occasional deference to their manager, irrespective of their personal thoughts, there is no such requirement here as Brent is their peer and not their boss. Brent and Nigel are irritants, particularly to Jezza (Andrew Brooke), a rep whose disdain has a disconcerting edge to it.
Despite confessing to having had a nervous breakdown after The Office, Brent doesn’t appear to have a heightened consciousness of how he might be represented on screen, and persists with the same type of jokes and remarks.
The gags and comments that he delivered daily on the stage that was Wernham Hogg saw him continually called out by his employees and bosses for misogyny, sexism, homophobia and racism, and each instance was generally followed by blustered attempts on his part to clear his name or deflect it on to someone else.
There is no subject off limits for laughter when it comes to Life on the Road, and while Brent makes some effort to claim he’s entitled to make similar gags, for example, by bringing rapper Dom Johnson (Doc Brown) into the office to prove ‘how sensitive I am to difference’ after human resources pull him up over a misogynistic joke, in the main, he largely goes unchecked.
Where he does desperately wish to portray himself as tolerant and inclusive is in the lyrics of his songs.
The focus is very much on Brent throughout as he goes ‘on tour’ over a period of eleven days. This is fodder for those inclined to mock, but receptionist Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) and colleague Pauline (Jo Hartley) appear to have genuine concern and goodwill for him even if they are subjected to questionable conversations and baulk at some of his carry on.
His twentysomething band, which includes Razorlight’s Andy Burrows on drums, along with sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden), are a serious po-faced lot whose contempt for their lead singer and employer goes from barely concealed to completely undisguised.
It appears that Brent now lives in a world which has forgotten how to laugh, despite his best, and worst, efforts.
The bridge between David and the band is Dom, played by Doc Brown with whom Gervais co-wrote and performed Equality Street for Comic Relief in 2013. But while Dom is David’s ally, he is similarly frustrated at his penchant for putting himself front and centre, the lyrics he has Dom rapping to, and his lack of support with regard to his own career.
Pouring money into the venture, including from his pension fund, the question is, will all of this pay off and see David Brent finally fulfil his dream of getting a record deal?
As with The Office, Life on the Road makes you laugh, cringe and even choke up in parts.
There are quality performances across the board, including great cameos from Kevin Bishop and Diane Morgan, and while I did rather like the way The Office ended, and found it a tad dispiriting to find Brent in the same position so many years on, it is a particular delight to see Ricky Gervais back on screen reprising the role as exceptionally as you might expect.
“On the road is where I really come alive” Brent grins at one point, thus imbuing the film’s title with more than the sum of its parts.
He has retained his sympathetic form, not only on foot of the fact that he is out of place and step, but because he is a man who simply refuses to give up on his dream. This ensures a certain admiration for him, particularly against the backdrop of a world which treats him poorly, even if it’s deserved at times. There is also a strength in him that has clearly built up over time, and mention is made of his resilience, which even he doesn’t appear to know he has.
David Brent: Life on the Road is a meditation on many things, the most abiding of which are likely to be the importance of humanity, resilience in the face of adversity, and the entitlement to dream.
By Emma Hynes
I reviewed David Brent: Life on the Road on behalf of Film Ireland.