There is a certain inevitability about middle aged comic stars returning to the material that made them a recognisable name in the first place. Maybe it’s because comedy is such a rapidly evolving art form, so a comedian’s time at the top is an often fleeting one, where his or her brand of humorous stick can only resonate for so long. Returning to the comfort of an old favourite feels like a sure thing. This year saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s ham-fisted attempt to reintroduce his Ali-G persona at the Oscars as well as Jennifer Saunder’s middling film incarnation of her Ab Fab roots. To call these two “washed up” would be a stretch but it does reek of creative stagnation just a tad (anyone who saw Baron Cohen’s insipid “Grimbsy” should understand my sentiment).
Now 55, Ricky Gervais’ decision to re-inhabit his socially unaware, cringe inducing interpretation of every unfunny boss we’ve ever had has a similar vibe to it. Of course, David Brent has returned in a number of guises (YouTube Channels, Red nose day skits) in the period since The UK Office ended almost 13 (!) years ago, but this year’s film outing is the character’s first real comeback of note. It’s not so much an act of desperation by Gervais, but Life on the Road feels like he’s rehashing reliable material to prove his leading man credentials after some middling efforts. His last film was the Netflix produced Special Correspondents, a punishingly vanilla satire of news culture that would have been downright awful had it tried be anything other than comfortably mediocre. Life on the Road is probably the superior work, but not by much. Sporadically funny and surprisingly slight, this isn’t so much a film as it is 90 minute attempt to remind us of a forgotten brand.
So what’s changed for our hapless and humourless jokester since that Christmas special way back in 2003? Well everything really, but also nothing. David Brent is no longer the general manger at the Slough Branch of the Paper Merchants Wernahm Hog, and the cast of misfit employees who worked under him are all also nowhere to be seen here (including the hinted at romantic interest, but I digress). These days, he’s a lowly sales rep in yet another soul crushingly mundane office in the norm-core capital of Berkshire, England. Some horribly misguided aspirations send Brent on a tour around the country (or more aptly the Berkshire area) with his band Forgone Conclusion, as he tries fruitlessly to get the record deal that will allow him to escape the monotonous reality he presides in. Once again, there is a camera crew following him along for the ride.
Even with all this apparent metamorphosis, Brent’s modus operandi is still to create hand over eyes awkward moments with his trademark, politically incorrect Dad humour. Expect to see crude impressions of china men with lots of “yerrow”, HIGHlariously liberal use of the N-word and songs informing us about why “we shouldn’t make fun of the disabled”. Gervais must already be salivating at the prospect of all those inconsequential twitter rows with those darned, joke hating SJW’s that he hopes these bits will illicit. Of course, just like the show, the point of it all was not that we are supposed to laugh with Brent, but rather at him. This time round though, it’s all laid on bit too thick. Brent is a more unforgivingly pathetic figure here, almost overbearingly so. Having him spending hundreds of pounds just to get people to have drink with him isn’t all that funny , just pitifully sad. If I wanted to watch someone ineptly socialise without much laughs, I’d just reminisce about my own early teens.
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Life on the Road is basically two half movies in one with scenes in the office and scenes with the band sharing the spoils and making up the running time. I say half movies because the two “plots” feel utterly incongruous together. The gig and touring are certainly the main focus but it’s as if we need reminding every often that there was this show called The Office, which was all set in an office so here’s some bits in an office. The newly introduced workplace characters, however, gets such sparse amounts of development that they end up feeling about as necessary as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. It’s the tour scenes that fare better in that is where most of the film’s funnier moments lie but they still rely on low hanging fruit like the idea that sex with a heavy set woman is the highest form of hilarity there is.
And then there’s the music. Its fine, but these songs’ heavily polished, studio produced sound undermines their comedic power and any believable notion that they would be made by a supposedly fledgling band. Gervais wrote these tracks over a number of years with the help of Chris martin and Andy Burrows (who also stars as one of Brent’s unfortunate bandmates here). You’d have thought that if you could count on one of the former members of Razorlight for anything, it would be in his reliable ability to make terrible music, but I guess even that falls short when it’s actually needed.
Had The Office not ended when it did, and kept on running for those 13 years, David Brent: Life on the Road would be the unwelcome high concept episode that comes along when they’ve run out of ideas. Whatever your opinion about the original show, there is no denying that The Office altered the landscape of TV comedy and helped bring it out of the rigid doldrums of laugh tracks and multiple cameras. Looking at Life on the Road, however, it’s clear that game that Gervais changed has changed once again. The mockumentary style he champions, that once seemed so fresh, is now only reserved for pastiche: It says a lot when even The Muppets, hardly an institution with a sharp eye on the zeitgeist, are getting in on the act. In this film, the world has become increasingly unkind to Brent because Gervais thinks it becomes a much crueller place. Perhaps though, things haven’t got much worse, but rather the man has finally just like his bumbling persona, being blissfully unaware of how woefully out of touch he truly is.