He’s been through a nervous breakdown, a prozac addiction, and hours of therapy, but david brent hasn’t changed a bit. the world, however, has. it’s a tougher, meaner place with less time to please a nice jerk.
that’s the premise of life on the road, the uneven but not entirely unsuccessful spin-off of ricky gervais’ office. written, directed and starring gervais, it is a rehash that neither develops the character nor betrays it. it simply assumes that we still share his weaknesses and therefore care about the fool.
and we do it, simply. Brent was always, deep down, a dreamer. a man who means well and acts stupidly. life on the road works largely as a reminder of gervais’s skill with this character’s tics: the neighing laugh, the lip bit too late, that gasped look at the camera when he realizes what he’s just to say. at best, he carries on the tradition of the little man struggling against his own limits. at worst: some weak jokes about fat people, a couple of moments where brent is too stupid for his backstory: he’s small, worn, and old-fashioned.
A few years have passed since the filming of The Office and the world has turned to Brent. she now works as a sales representative for lavichem, a supplier of cleaning products that sells scouring pads, dishcloths, and tampons (“one size fits all…no…it’s not really like that”). At his old workplace, Wernham Hogg, Brent was largely tolerated as a harmless nuisance, but this new office is full of finches: pushy salesmen who openly bully him. There’s a pseudo-Gareth (Tom Bennett) and a Dawn of sorts (Mandeep Dhillon), but most of Lavichem’s workforce is hostile; less tolerant of outcasts and misfits. There is less room for Brent in a workplace where individuality is counterproductive. as long as he was the boss, he could afford to fuck around. in lavichem, the “spark” from him, as a sympathetic character calls it, cannot simply be ignored, it must be extinguished.
In brent’s mind, escape lies on the open road and a series of concerts with his band, a foregone conclusion. the reality is, of course, crushingly different. the gang are day laborers who hate him. concerts are underserved disasters. the open road is the m25, an almost complete loop. And he’s paying for it all: the tour bus, the hotel rooms, Sergio Georgini’s new jacket, and bowls of licorice of all kinds backstage, out of his own pocket.
The scenario makes sense, but there is something tiresome about the execution. As he has often done before, Gervais uses the tour and, to some extent, the film (and the promotion that surrounds it) to channel his own latent rock star ambitions. so there are very long renditions of songs of forgotten conclusion (equality street, lady gypsy, native american) that, although fun, continue. the music (“new romantic, but modern. a bit bublé, a bit david essex”) is horrible. the lyrics are almost exclusively about a call for compassion: for blacks, indigenous people, homosexuals, and the disabled (“help the clumsy get through the door”). it’s in very bad taste, but that’s brent. by appealing to understanding, he is really appealing to people to understand him.
it’s clear from the start that this is a ricky gervais solo outing. The moderating influence of his office co-creator, Stephen Merchant (not involved, something about “schedules”) is missing, leaving a ragged comedy that lacks discipline. the mockumentary format, used so brilliantly in the original show, takes a ride once the action starts. we’re never sure when the fictional camera crew is present. There’s a heavy reliance on speakers to lean in Brent’s favor, particularly rapper Doc Brown, who reprises the comic relief of him as Dom, a wannabe MC who’s been sucked into Brent’s orbit. A decent guy who can see the desperation behind Brent’s bragging, Dom is the Tim of the movie. a nice guy who basically wants what’s best for brent, even if he’s often the target of his assumptions about race. In a difficult but poignant scene, a very drunk Brent insists on being called “my black.” Dom, horrified, agrees because the cameras are rolling. again, all brent wants is validation. For Brent, both adrift in her friendship with a black man and delighted with her, this is the ultimate acceptance.
all of this depends on the audience liking, or even loving, david brent as much as before, on giving him as many chances as gervais. it’s a problem that is acknowledged twice: once through a scene where a local dj doesn’t know who brent is, but says he was on a show “like the call center” (a genuine documentary about the workplace which was issued years after the office); the next in a scene where the foregone conclusion is reserved for playing at a shitty student union night (“the shittiest bits of culture in the last 20 years”). The threat of David Brent being misunderstood by a younger audience is real, as is the danger that those of us who were there the first time will tire of him. brent is not partridge and gervais is not coogan. At the same time, you can’t throw a situation at her like you would with, say, Edina and Patsy. gervais and merchant built this character too well.
there were braver things gervais could have done with the character. the bravest being to leave him where he was. the office (two series, two christmas specials) was finished almost perfectly. It’s a shame to see the joke reheated. still, the world is not getting any smarter. All of us, from the boss who signs a layoff email with details of his vacation plans to the Hollywood star who says he has no problem playing gay because “he’ll stand with his arm around his best friend in a pub. not a problem” – we have our brent moments. the character endures, no matter how harsh or mean the world is.