Ricky Gervais is a comedian I have mixed feelings about. I find The Office and The Ricky Gervais Show relatively funny but find his stand up as well as his more recent stuff like Derek unbearably bad. So I was looking forward to him going back to one of his best characters, David Brent, from arguably his best show. And after Ab Fab and Dad’s Army earlier this year, will Ricky Gervais give us a good TV spin-off?
David Brent: Life On The Road stars Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Tom Basden and Diane Morgan and is written and directed by Ricky Gervais. The film follows former sales rep David Brent (Gervais) as he forms a band and goes on tour.
David Brent tries to emulate the great cringe-worthy humour that made The Office a hit, to varying success. There were many moments when I had my head in my hands, hysterically laughing at the sheer awkwardness on-screen. Those times are when David Brent shines, when he’s playing his songs about the plight of Native Americans (with lyrics based off facts from Wikipedia) or when he’s over-explaining his suggestive lyrics. The film works when Brent plays off other people, but when he’s on his own, it’s like a pathetic form of stand-up. Gervais didn’t team up with his Office co-writer Stephen Merchant for Life On The Road, and it can be felt in the script. It feels too stuck on Brent, who is insufferable to deal with in long bursts.
The jokes are Gervais’ usual. If you’re easily offended then you will think that Life On The Road is walking an extremely fine line. Borderline racist impressions of Asians, constant and crude references to sex acts and genitals, to some it will be too much. I think that misses the point. There isn’t a malicious side to it, and while you will laugh with Brent, you will find yourself laughing more at him and his actions. The songs that he plays on his tour follow this train of humour, with songs about disabled people and terminally ill children. You’ll either be with it or you won’t.
The film tries to replace Tim, Dawn and Gareth of The Office with Brent’s bandmates and entourage. Some of the band, such as Doc Brown’s fledgling rapper Dom Johnson (who has to rap about inane nonsense that Brent writes for him) and Tom Basden’s road manager Dan, who keeps getting more and more irate with Brent’s constant unfunny jokes, are great additions. While these two characters get several scenes, the rest of the band gets little to no character development, relegated to just sitting around the bar and drinking. We get small talking-head interviews with them but none last more than a minute. Diane Morgan (known for her character Philomena Cunk) turns up half way through the film as Brent’s recently hired publicist, but again, like the band, she’s a cameo at best. The film would work better with more interactions with characters.
I had two major problems with the film. While the second half of the film, when the band is performing, is full of jokes, the first half has hardly any, focussing more on Brent in his new job. Gervais said this “wasn’t an Office film”, so why do we spend so much of the first act there? The second is the ending. After nearly ninety minutes of showing Brent as a buffoon, Life On The Road tries to swap it and make him some sort of tragic hero. It feels tonally at odds with the rest of the film and lowers the ending. The tone also swings wildly throughout, with trips to the psychiatrist and depressing early mornings while drinking alone, it just doesn’t mesh well within a comedy.
Fifteen years after The Office started, David Brent: Life On The Road feels a little bit like a cash-in on a greatly revered series. It’s not a great follow-up, but the script and biting humour stops the score from being any lower.
Score: 6/10 Funny but flawed.