David Brent: Life on the Road

August 25, 2016
Ricky Gervais in 'David Brent: Life on the Road' (2016)
Ricky Gervais in 'David Brent: Life on the Road' (2016)

Almost everyone who has worked in an office will have thought from time to time it would make a great comedy series. So when Ricky Gervais gave us The Office in 2001, I felt he must have had a spy at the National Gallery of Australia. The similarities between that institution and the fictional world of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company in Slough, were uncanny.

There’s something strangely comforting in watching your worst experiences replayed on screen, allowing one to be a spectator rather than a participant.

Thirteen years on, having been through a few hits and misses with other comedy projects, Gervais has resurrected his greatest creation in David Brent: Life on the Road. It’s understandable if alarm bells start ringing because the only thing sadder than a movie based on a successful TV series is a movie based on a successful TV series that’s more than a decade old. The Absolutely Fabulous movie is a prime example of the breed: a chaotic, over-the-top, charmless mess that tries too hard to be outrageous and only succeeds in trashing memories of the original series. If it’s not quite as wretched as the 2012 movie based on The Sweeney, that’s only because Ray Winstone wasn’t hired to play Eddy or Patsy.

It was with suitably lowered expectations that I sat down to watch David Brent: Life on the Road, only to find a film that far exceeded expectations. Not only is it funny in the same cringe-inducing way The Office was funny, it manages to humanise the hapless hero in a manner that scarcely seems possible, considering that he’s one of the most stupendous prats ever to grace the screen.

Gervais has been shrewd enough not to attempt to reconstruct Wernham Hogg. Thirteen years after his original appearance on reality TV the filmmakers have tracked down David Brent in his new job – as a sales representative for another Slough-based company called Lavichem, who make cleaning products.

This is a come-down from his previous job where he was the office manager, but David retains the same err.. irrepressible sense of humour, and still sees himself as a great entertainer waiting to be discovered. As we enter the story he is on the verge of a momentous step: taking three weeks’ leave and going out on the road with a band. It’s nothing less than a new version of his old group, Foregone Conclusion, albeit formed from hired session musicians. It’s a date with destiny – the opportunity to seize the success he knows he deserves.

First he must take leave of the office, chiefly of his friend, Nigel (Love and Friendship’s Tom Bennett), who is almost as irritating as he is; and Pauline (Jo Hartley), who has an unrequited crush on him. At first these characters seem to stretch the bounds of credulity. Could anybody think David is funny? Could any woman find him appealing? “Yes!” says Gervais, making us see that David is essentially good-natured, despite his abrasiveness.

This gives us pause. We recognise that David is really a pathetic loser, struggling with depression, who puts on a brave face for the camera. By far the bulk of the film shows him in full flight – making politically incorrect jokes, dreaming of stardom, imagining an ideal camaraderie with a band that stares at him in silence whenever he enters the room. To feed his delusions of grandeur David has cashed in a couple of pension accounts to hire the musicians and a full-sized bus. As there is still no room for him, he has to follow in his car. Because of an unexpected difficulty with bookings the tour occurs somewhere between Slough and Reading.

Along for the trip is Dom (Ben Bailey Smith), a young rapper who thought David wanted to be his manager. In fact David seems to value Dom’s presence because it shows that he has a black friend, and is therefore really cool. It doesn’t mean though that Dom will be allowed to upstage the star of the show with any rap routines. The tour is entirely of David’s design. His stage manner, his outfit, and the songs themselves, are relics of 70s power pop.

The numbers most likely to make one slide down under the seat are forays into social criticism, such as Native American, which may sound racist, but is in fact a show of solidarity with the Indians. I can’t begin to describe the song in which he tells the audience not to make fun of the disabled. The music written by Andy Burrows, the drummer in the band, is completely convincing. It’s only David’s lyrics that provide the cringe factor.

While the darkest films require a glint of humour to offset the tension, Gervais shows that successful comedy requires a reciprocal touch of pathos. The documentary approach creates a necessary distance between us and the characters. It also allows the band to speak candidly about David in interviews, voicing their exasperation. They can’t bear him, but don’t hate him. In fact, they feel sorry for him, and oddly enough that’s exactly the way most people will feel at the end of this road trip of broken dreams.

David Brent: Life on the Road
Written & directed by Ricky Gervais
Starring Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Doc Brown, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett, Andy Burrows, Tom Basden, Steve & Michael Clark, Stuart Wilkinson
UK, rated MA 15+, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th August, 2016.