It’s almost a year since I became the film critic for ScreenCritics and in that time, I have reviewed a lot of TV shows making the transition to the big screen. And there is a reason why they are usually rubbish, because it is tough to make something that usually lasts 25 minutes, it does seem like more sitcoms than dramas try to make the jump to the cinema, last around 90 minutes is incredibly tough. It changes all of your pacing and even how you tell your jokes, because how you laugh in shows and movies is incredible difficult. But they will keep on trying and next up to bat is David Brent: Life on the Road.
Years on from the documentary that made him slightly famous, David Brent (Ricky Gervais, The Invention of Lying) is back as a sales rep but he wants to be much more. So by using many of the different pensions he has, he bankrolls his band Foregone Conclusion on a tour around Berkshire. The problem is, his band is terrible.
Of course when Ricky Gervais first made The Office, and I’d argue this film is more of a spin-off than a follow-up, it was revolutionary and completely changed sitcoms forever. Yes, I know that is a cliché, but it really did. Before The Office, most comedies were still four camera affairs and were filmed in front of live studio audiences. And while the British version didn’t last that long, it had an effect. There are now very few sitcoms which have a live studio audience, and many follow the mockumentary style, especially Modern Family. Heck, even shows which don’t have any pretense to be a mockumentary often do the same cinematography such as the brilliant Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So this show returning in any form is a big thing, especially on the big screen where Gervais now spends most of his time.
While Gervais hasn’t had the best time in his own directorial efforts since moving to the big screen, none of his films have been particularly bad but none of them have really been brilliant either, just decent little time wasters, he does seem to get he can’t just get back the gang from The Office and make a 90 minute episode. He decides to go full on and take Brent on the road as he aims to become with his band, who’d rather be anywhere else than this. It’s certainly an interesting idea, especially as Gervais toyed with this idea in a few shorts that were released over the last few years.
And what we see for 90 minutes is a man going through one of the worst mid-life crisis that you’ll ever witness. What has always worked about Brent’s character is not the cringe comedy, but the sadness that is present within, usually down to Gervais perfect understanding of the character. As soon as Brent says a line he thinks is funny, but isn’t, he is makes that irritating little laugh to disguise the fact that no one else is actually laughing. Yes, it can be funny to watch what seems to Brent’s arrogance and hubris, yet it’s the sadness and perhaps even depression that make the character interesting.
And on that cringe comedy, that is what is going to make or break the film for you. The humor comes from how much you can laugh at the complete obliviousness that Brent has and for me, it’s not something I like. Instead of yucking it up when those long silences stretch on and the characters are staring at each other in disbelief at what was said, I was sort of waiting for the killer line. That’s my sort of comedy, the ones with great lines and performances that are heightened. This sort of gritty cringe comedy isn’t really my thing and I get that is down to my own personal taste. The film does have good lines, so I did laugh, but the focus is the cringe so your enjoyment will depend on if you like that sort of film.
Of course I should talk about the songs for a bit, which you can actually buy on a proper album or you may have caught it when Gervais toured around the cinematic release of the film. The songs are well made, they have nice instrumentation and Gervais’ voice is in tune, so they unlistenable drecks of things. This isn’t an X Factor audition. No the cringe, and supposed humor, comes from the terrible lyrics. The horrible tone-deaf lyrics. Brent thinks of himself as a nice guy and so is against the likes of racism, sexism and ableism. But he is very bad at doing so, meaning his songs are well-meaning, but ultimately horrible ways to tackle these issues. That makes them the funniest part of the film, as it’s done through the well-defined character of Brent, nice but oblivious. Simple stuff to do, but it is effective.
I will admit, I’m not a fan of Ricky Gervais or much of his work. It’s just not to my tastes and my issues with his material is more down to my preferences than it is his talent. And so it is tough for me to review David Brent: Life on the Road, which simply moves Brent from an office to a stage and then allows us to witness his life continue to implode. I’m sure if you are a fan of The Office, you will enjoy this as tonally it’s not much different, but if you are a Gervais skeptic, it won’t change your mind.