David Brent: Life On The Road puts a strong first foot forward, opening with a mundane montage of Ricky Gervais’ former paper merchants’ general manager touring the nation trying to sell toiletries. Blasting over the sad sights of Brent’s life post-The Office are the sweet sounds of the film and the tie-in album’s title track, Life On The Road.
This is the strongest song you’ll find in the film. Gervais gives Brent’s vocals a Britpop-aping faux-swagger, but instead of singing about morning glories or country houses, Brent’s explaining how much petrol it will take him to get to Milbank. For purposes of a good rhyme, this, of course, is half a tank.
All the good things about the movie are here in the opening sequence: Brent’s constant bragging (“I’m killing it in Widnes!”), the quiet lack of true confidence he’s hiding underneath it (the line “wheeler dealing, no feeling” got a genuine ‘aww’ from the press screening audience), and Gervais’ impressive ability to drilldown into the most plain of things and find a laugh in there (I won’t spoil that line for you, but I will say it involves a major UK coffee chain).
For me, this opening salvo is the peak of the film, with a selection of sweet scenes at the end coming close to matching its heights. Your enjoyment of the comedic content in between will depend entirely on where your threshold is for deliberately risqué humour. This has always been David Brent’s M.O., and here Gervais – who pulled triple duties writing, directing and starring – embraces the chance to explore that over 90 minutes.
The result is a film that generated almost constant laughter during the screening, but notably with different people blurting out chuckles at different gags. It’s a scattergun approach, which is bound to find your funny-bone occasionally, if not consistently, with Brent insulting everyone from the handicapped to Native Americans. (The film pauses to make sure we know that Brent isn’t actually a racist, showing a little how the comedy world has changed since his last moment in the spotlight.)
The jibes and Brent’s nervous inhale whenever he enters a room did start to lose me just a little. But there was enough of Brent’s softer side on show elsewhere to keep me interested.
The crux of the story is simple: a documentary crew has asked to follow David Brent around again 15 years after The Office, and he’s decided to cash in a bunch of pensions he’s been paying into since the 1990s in order to give them a show. He’s using this new platform as a stage on which to showcase his song-writing and showmanship abilities. In order to so, he’s splurged all of his savings on session musicians, hotels and a big ol’ tour bus (even though all of the gigs he manages to book are only a few miles on the M25 away from his home in Slough).
The tour format takes Brent out of the relatable workplace environment, which is a risky move that doesn’t always pay off. Instead of seeing Brent bouncing off of colleagues who are forced to spend time with him, we get him pointing out the amenities provided by cheap hotels, for want of something better to do between shows.
Brent’s Foregone Conclusion band-mates don’t want to spend any time with him outside of the gigs that he’s them paying for, and they constantly slag him off in cutaway interviews. This isn’t too effective, because it leaves Brent without a group of people to interact with. Plus, none of the musicians have the comic timing of, say, Martin Freeman.
This middle section of the film lags and drags, punctuated with live versions of Brent’s songs which vary from chortle-inducing (some of the shoehorned rhymes of Native American had me giggling) to heart-warming (Brent’s ode to Slough is genuinely touching, especially if you’re from a similarly unglamorous place) to forgettable (I’m not sure Ooh La La had any jokes in it).
Doc Brown – a comedian you may have seen on TV rapping about tea – is a major saving grace. He brings a lot of charisma and put-upon frustration to his character, Dom, a talented young rapper who is coerced into Brent’s band and reluctantly develops a real friendship with him. Dom is the comedic foil that Brent always needs to rein him in.
If political correctness is your thing, you may well walk out of this one with steam coming out of your ears. If you’re a David Brent fan who’s used to all of that, you’ll probably come out thinking he’s been a funnier and more focused comedic beast before, but it was fun to spend time with him again.
The office-set scenes at the beginning and the end are funnier than most of the stuff in between, but they’ll make you wish for a reunion between Brent and the old Wernham Hogg gang. It was bouncing off of the likes of Freeman, Crook and Davis that made Gervais’ breakthrough character such an engaging presence in the first place. That magic isn’t quite recaptured here, but having Brent back is more good than bad.