VOD film review: David Brent: Life on the Road
Ben Bailey Smith8
Mark Harrison | On 15, Dec 2016
Directed by: Ricky Gervais
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Bennett
What hath The Inbetweeners wrought? The surprise blockbuster success of the E4 characters’ big-screen outing has led to a rash of similar spin-offs for British TV shows, of which only Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and The Inbetweeners’ sequel have been any good. While Ricky Gervais’ David Brent: Life On The Road is a long way from the nadir of Keith Lemon: The Film, it’s the latest of the lame big screen revivals.
The UK version of The Office has one of the best and most satisfying endings of any sitcom, succinctly tying up loose ends and seeing off each of the characters we’ve come to love. To effectively undo that by focusing on the further adventures of cringe-making manager David Brent is risky, but to do it in an over-extended sequel to his quite enjoyable 2013 Comic Relief skit, Equality Street, is a transparently self-indulgent exercise for Gervais.
15 years on, Brent is a sales rep for Lavichem, a bathroom supplies firm where his extroverted un-PC antics are roundly ignored by all but two of his colleagues: Pauline (Jo Hartley), who clearly carries a torch for him, and Nigel (Tom Bennett), his equally immature mate. We pick up as he makes a desperate bid to resume his music career by reforming his band Foregone Conclusion, taking a month’s unpaid leave and dipping into his pension to fund a disastrous tour of Berkshire.
Gervais has returned to Brent a couple of times over the years, which goes to show he can still raise a laugh with his most popular character. Even here, his delivery of the word “juice” at the end of a runaway riff is the biggest laugh of the whole film. However, the post-Derek Gervais is much more given to either grasping for pathos or an overly defensive tone, and Life On The Road feels more like the result of these later impulses than a natural continuation for Brent.
Brent constantly having to justify going back to the well to the cameras and those around him feels like Gervais pre-emptively telling off detractors, rather than telling a story. More optimistically, he has many of the characters warm to Brent over the course of the film, including two women, who have no personal traits other than to understand how he actually means well. Gervais shoots for pathos more often than jokes, but it’s mostly just sad.
However, the most meta gag in the film is that Dom’s talents are wasted on Brent’s vanity project, because you come away from this wanting to see more of Ben Bailey Smith. Just as the brilliant Tom Bennett is distinct from, but serves the same function as, Mackenzie Crook in The Office, Bailey Smith does a great line in Martin Freeman-brand exasperation to the cameras, but then also has all of the best lines and all of the best musical moments in the film. His solo rap Cards We’re Dealt, which features the mind-boggling pun “My time is overdue, like a synagogue roof”, is as good as the original soundtrack gets.
The other songs are neither good or bad enough to ring true – they’re too polished for the brand of mid-life crisis band that Gervais is trying to spoof, and not funny enough to work on a comedy album. In terms of the score, the incidental sting of that familiar Stereophonics theme leaves you sentimental not for the character, but for what has been undone by this belated spin-off. The implicit in-character promise that Gervais might bring him back again in another decade or so is truly chilling for anyone who loved the series.
Gervais’ out-of-The Office auto-message makes more excuses for itself to exist than actual jokes. Minus the grounding of Tim, Dawn, Gareth and even co-creator Stephen Merchant, it’s an excruciatingly mawkish test of our tolerance for Brent’s foolishness. It answers the question of which is the true monster, the creator or the creation, with a resounding “look, he’s harmless, so back off, alright?”