If we’re all very lucky, David Brent: Life On The Road will not represent the beginning of a comeback for Ricky Gervais’ flailing career.
British Feature Comedy at the moment appears to be in either a fond nostalgia fest, a self-indulgent and futile exercise in mining old gold for a few precious drops of monetary satisfaction, creatively bankrupt, any combination of those three, or all of them at once. 2016 has already seen film adaptations of Dad’s Army and Absolutely Fabulous whilst somebody decided to give Sacha Baron Cohen $35 million in order to try and make the worst film ever committed to digital celluloid. Dad’s Army failed to craft any jokes whatsoever let alone a story or reason for existing now in 2016, Ab Fab turned into the very hateful desperate out-of-touch thing that the first few series of the show spent mocking, whilst Grimsby at least let me brush up on my (terrible) fiction writing skills if nothing else. And now, Ricky Gervais has brought back David Brent.
Except that that’s not really true, is it? David Brent has never really left, and I don’t mean in the sense that his American equivalent, Michael Scott, was a staple of the US sitcom line-up for 6 or so years. No, I mean that David Brent has effectively been subsumed into Ricky Gervais at this point. Brent in The Office was a pathetic man, a loud and often obnoxious twerp who had a crippling and desperate need to be liked by everyone, to be seen as the life and soul of whatever the party was, that ended up making him a drain to be around for those very people. But, and this is crucial, the Brent of The Office is aware of this. He’s not inherently a bad guy. What he is is lonely, a dreamer whose total mediocrity he can’t quite come to terms with, and his pathological need to be liked and to play up to the cameras ends up manifesting all of his worst impulses and leaves him pitiable. There’s a kernel of truth there, cliché as it is to state, because everybody knows or is somebody who is at least a little like David Brent.
Gervais, however, is Brent but with none of those redeeming qualities, as pretty much his entire post-Extras career has proven. Where Brent’s misplaced overconfidence is born from insecurity, Gervais’s is born from arrogance. Where Brent is offensive and obnoxious because he misguidedly believes giving into his worst impulses is the only way to be liked, Gervais is offensive and obnoxious in the same way that a child can be, only he’s now 55 years old so that kind of deliberate provocation (purely so he can obnoxiously laugh about how he offended you cos you’re a crybaby) is an irritation and sad in a non-pitiable way. Where Brent’s desire for fame in spite of his own mediocrity is relatable because we all know that he can’t make it, Gervais’s continued desperate grabs for attention – despite arguably not being relevant or doing anything interesting in the last 5 years, since he “controversially” hosted the 68th Golden Globes – are equivalent to your drunk racist, sizest Uncle at a wedding refusing to take the hint to just go home already.
So that’s one reason why a David Brent solo movie is a terrible idea in and of itself – as well as a problem in the finished product, which we’ll get to. Another is the fact that in The Office, Brent was merely one part of a larger ensemble. Try as his character might’ve, he couldn’t push out the rest of the cast and we didn’t have to spend all of our time with him. After all, if we did in fact spend all of our time with him, we’d likely tire of him very quickly much like the rest of the cast do and grow to resent him; there’s a reason why people don’t hang out with real life-Brents for too long at a time. Then there’s the fact that the mockumentary format, so brilliantly deployed in the original series back in 2000, is now played out totally. Shows that do use it either creatively improved upon it (Arrested Development), basically abandoned it outside of the Shakespeare/theatre-type to-camera monologues (Parks and Recreation), or were pretty much dead on arrival for their usage of it (the latest Muppets show).
With all of these very justifiable reasons for not making a David Brent movie – which don’t also include the fact that Ricky Gervais hasn’t done anything decent in years, that his non-Stephen Merchant work is almost always terrible, and the commonly-accepted belief that The Office was perfect and doesn’t need to be returned to in any way, shape, or form – what did Ricky Gervais end up making with Life on the Road? Well, he ended up making exactly the film you’d expect him to. An excruciating and endless-feeling 96 minute self-pitying temper tantrum for attention. And it is fucking awful.
What’s most irritating about the film, however, is just how close to a self-aware and genuinely good version of this film that Life on the Road manages to get – in fact, it reminds me very specifically of one particular TV show that follows in the Gervais/Merchant footsteps, but we’ll come back to that later – only for Gervais’ complete lack of self-awareness and narcissistic insistence on being a well-liked superior to everyone else to instead steer the entire enterprise into the most gratingly insufferable outcome possible. To wit, we rejoin David Brent (Gervais, obviously) as a sales rep for a company that moves toiletries, tampons and such. His life post-Office has basically gone nowhere and he hasn’t changed one bit, still dedicated to trying to entertain, to make it as a musician with his (backing) band Foregone Conclusion, and still desperately trying to prove just how non-racist, non-sexist, and non-homophobic he is.
The difference is that the world has considerably moved on from David Brent. For one, the documentary filmmakers he thinks are there to chronicle specifically his rise to rock stardom are actually hedging their bets by more filming the new office that Brent works for rather than Brent himself. For two, The Office was 15 years ago and this newer younger generation, in universe, therefore have no reason to know or care who David Brent is, his vanity project essentially being that of a once semi-famous Z-list celebrity from [x] years ago refusing to let go of that past. And for three, Brent now works in an office with people who, barring an impressionable wannabe-Brent in-the-making (Tom Bennet) and an Underwritten Token Love Interest (an utterly wasted Jo Hartley) cos Gervais has now hit Peak Middle-Aged White Guy, openly despise his entire schtick and have absolutely no time for him. His frequent bursts into “characters” like an offensive gay stereotype and an offensive Asian stereotype incur him the wrath of Human Resources because, unlike when he was a boss, he cannot hide his behaviour behind his power, because he doesn’t have any.
But any potential self-awareness that one could infer from this set-up is very quickly revealed to instead be nothing more than a backdrop for Gervais to have a whinge about how he can’t make offensive jokes anymore, how his career this decade has floundered majorly, and how nobody except the already converted likes him anymore. Remember Pixels from last year? How that was less of a film for other people to enjoy and more a procession of self-insert fan-fic sequences where the Happy Madison crew got one over on all of their various haters in order to make themselves feel better and project this falsehood that they’re all great? That’s Life on the Road and, in both instances, utilising the phrase “self-insert fan-fics” to describe them is an insult to actual self-insert fan-fics.
The entire world is so geared against Brent, into expressing its disapproval for him, into shaming him for being who he is, that you are supposed to be blatantly conditioned into rooting for this self-absorbed twat-basket. Brent is the only one who gets to make funny in this movie, whether he’s the one making the jokes or whether the jokes are on him, whilst everybody else gets to be a completely humourless cipher for any hatred Gervais has experienced throughout the years. The Human Resources conversation early on, which follows a good two full minutes of Gervais busting out offensive gay and Asian stereotypes, lets Brent get in some attempts at zingers as well as an opportunity to embarrass himself whilst she just humourlessly drawls on about “perceived offensiveness” as the film demands you show contempt for this perfectly reasonable woman.
Gervais writes not one but two full scenes of youth-friendly radio DJs and actual uni student teenagers being undeservedly mean to Brent, either by refusing to let him get a word in edgeways or automatically labelling him as a has-been or shit without giving him a chance, that are delivered in such a way as to make you feel sorry for him. Those at the office who don’t like him are extreme bullies who take great pleasure in making his life a living hell, whilst those on tour who don’t like him are depicted as selfish and only interested in their own careers and how they look standing on stage with him. Oh, and this being a Ricky Gervais work, there’s an extended diatribe about fat people, specifically fat women, here portrayed as two opportunistic stringers who effectively con Brent into giving them a room for the night and a minibar to devour because ha ha fat people, whilst Brent tries to spread a rumour that he actually did sleep with them but leaves out that they were fat because ew ew fat people.
And rather than actually write a bunch of scenes of Brent showing off his better qualities or being nice to people or actually not being an excessively privileged dick, the film elects instead to have a line of characters tell you point blank into the camera about how great of a guy Brent is deep down and how he doesn’t mean to be offensive and how we were all just taking things a bit too seriously when we were in the heat of the tour and Brent’s kind of a laugh to hang around with in all honesty. The film relies so exclusively on prior affection for the character that it doesn’t bother to manufacture reasons to like him now, almost 15 years later in this movie, or to like him when he’s insisting that Dom (Doc Brown) – a rapper who Brent discovered, ostensibly helped start managing, and now purely seems to use to bring his band some “urban” credibility and prove just how Not-Racist he is – call him the n-word, believing it hypocritical that, as a White man, Brent can’t say it affectionately to Dom, in an excruciatingly long sequence. Christ, at least Quentin Tarantino wants to actually be Black, this is just a White guy throwing a temper tantrum over not being allowed to do something!
Instead, Gervais just keeps turning the screws against Brent, desperately hoping that we’ll suddenly come back around to loving the character again because, hey, maybe the joke that he literally cannot even pay the band to hang out with him outside of stage time will become funny the 14th time it’s bashed across our heads! And when that inevitably doesn’t work, Gervais instead throws in a brief sequence where it’s mentioned that Brent has had multiple breakdowns after The Office ended, now suffers from clinical depression, and may even potentially be suicidal if this tour doesn’t go his way. This sequence is mainly here so that Gervais can keep calling people “mental” and to strain so hard for cheap audience sympathy that I, somebody who does live with clinical depression, was momentarily offended, not by the constant denigration towards those who suffer from mental illness, but more from just how fucking lazy this attempt was.
And as I sat there, watching a supposedly uplifting ending that occurs entirely from Brent blatantly guilt-tripping and emotionally manipulating everyone he knows into giving him some semblance of a happy ending, I realised that there was literally no reason for Life on the Road to exist. Not just because returning to your most famous comic creation nearly 15 years after you first retired it is the ultimate sign of creative bankruptcy, but because we already have a comic creation that examines basically everything that Life on the Road wants to and without getting side-tracked by long sequences of its writer-director fellating himself: BoJack Horseman. It’s not exactly a 1:1 comparison but both examine washed-up, depressed, self-destructive, lonely men caught in their own privileges with a pathological desire to be liked and often arrogantly refusing to change.
But BoJack Horseman is actually interested in being a character study, in treating and examining clinical depression seriously, in calling out BoJack’s worst behaviour and showing how much his worst tendencies end up hurting or corrupting those around him, in showing you his good qualities and occasionally selfless moments, and actually being funny. Life on the Road, by contrast, is only interested in Ricky Gervais’s ability to spend 96 minutes obsessively yelling about how brilliant he is and how we all should feel sorry for him because nobody likes him anymore, in treating clinical depression as nothing more than a cheap sympathy ploy, in indulging and often siding with Brent’s worst behaviour because “other people just don’t get this very special little snowflake and are meany boo-beenies,” in telling you how great Brent is rather than showing him being anything other than a self-absorbed tool, and trying desperately to offend fucking somebody rather than crafting any actual jokes.
It’s atrocious, insufferable, smugger than a thousand Conservative Party Conferences, and offensive only in the fact that Gervais seemingly assumes that people really do just want to see him make love to his own ego for an hour and a half. This is his self-insert fan-fic. It even ends with him monologuing to the camera about how everybody tearing Brent down are losers because they’re content to just sit and make do in life, pissing on the dreamers, whilst he’s at least willing to dream and try to be more than just an Office Man. And as he then walked off with Underwritten Token Love Interest, my response was succinctly: “fuck off, you self-righteous cunt.”
Also the songs are shit – the lyrics aren’t funny, and the music is neither good enough to stick in your ears nor bad enough to be funny. They’re average, which is nearly the most insulting thing about this whole wretched enterprise.
Callum Petch feels like a prized asshole, no-one even mentions his casserole. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!