I’m going to start with something of a bold statement: The Office is my favourite show of all time.
Its then-revolutionary voyeuristic style allowed us to meet an office space full of very real characters whose emotions and thoughts were, at times, complex. Perhaps they would say one thing and mean another and all we’d have to go on was a look at the camera or the inflection of a word.
It was subtle and it was, most importantly, real, and it was because of this strong sense of realism that we were also treated to one of television’s greatest love stories, in the form of Tim and Dawn. On top of this, the mockumentary style allowed for some hilarious scenarios and set-pieces that never felt like set-pieces; there were never jokes, only observations and as such it was easy to quickly grow attached to these workers and find their actions cringe-inducing, hysterical and, at times, heart-breaking.
Top all of this off with almost every character having a fully rounded off development arc (David Brent’s arrogant anti-hero to pitiful mess was particularly affecting) and you have a show that was so masterfully written that I’m struggling not to call it flawless.
It’s analysing what made The Office such an incredible show that is key to understanding how David Brent: Life on the Road does almost everything wrong.
A sort of follow-up
The movie acts as a sort of follow-up to the thirteen-year-old meta-documentary, The Office. It centres around David Brent, who now works as a travelling sales rep selling cleaning & women’s hygiene products for a company named Lavichem.
However, growing tired of the day-to-day grind of a dull job and once again craving the spotlight, he feels it’s time to re-unite his band, Foregone Conclusion, and perform a two-week tour around the country (or at least the Reading area). It’s a plot that is ripe for comedy as we get an already pitiful, desperate man now thirteen years older and still pretending he’s a rockstar, trying to fit in with a ‘trendy’ group of youths.
With the addition of the entire funding of the tour coming out of Brent’s pocket, thanks to a series of cashed-in pensions and having taken eleven days unpaid leave, there is also huge potential for the same underlying pathos and melancholy that laced the preceding show… but it never really comes together on either front.
An artificiality and lack of subtlety
The biggest problem with the movie is Gervais’ solo writing style. If you’ve watched Derek or Special Correspondents, you’ll know that he cannot do subtle (remember, the very thing that I said made The Office so special?) and it’s within the first twenty minutes that this becomes evident.
In the show, Brent would be embarrassing and difficult to swallow, but the supporting characters would put up with him with disdain hidden beneath a slight mask. In this movie, there is no mask. Everybody hates Brent. And I mean everybody.
Instead of trying to humour him, all of his office workers instead tell him to ‘fuck off’, call him a child, call him unbearable. His bandmates refuse to spend any time with him and go silent when he walks into the room. It was as he moved on to a dance floor and the dancing crowd all shuffled away from him, creating a sort of circle around him, that I realised all subtlety was out the window here and this wasn’t a film featuring David Brent – it’s a movie featuring the essence of David Brent with no hint of restraint.
This artificiality and lack of subtlety absolutely carries through to the movie’s third act. I won’t spoil anything here, but it very much felt that Gervais realised towards the end of the film that there was nothing redeeming about any of these characters (Brent being the only one who wasn’t completely one-dimensional, by the way) and no real emotional arc.
So, within the last twenty minutes or so, everything gets flipped – starting with a talking head of a bandmate who has hated Brent from the start suddenly, with no transition, saying ‘I quite like David, actually’ as all other bandmates followed suit. The person I was sitting beside visibly shrugged and I more than felt their frustration.
Cheap and lazy
The issues with the movie go deeper than the characters, though – inherently, the structure is bad. Bar the beginning and end, the middle of the movie feels like a slog as we see a series of scenes that follow this exact pattern – gig, reactions, band meeting, gig, reactions, band meeting, etc. It feels cheap and lazy and the movie is dull as a result of it; there is no real pacing, no highs and lows of emotion, just a series of jokes told in practically the same setting time and time again.
The structural issues are also noticeable in the movie’s complete disregard for the mockumentary genre that it establishes to begin with, before throwing it away until the end – you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it was even trying to be a faux-documentary.
The strength of the character
You’ll be happy to hear that not everything is bad, though. The movie is intermittently funny and I laughed out loud a number of times throughout and it was strong belly laughs – the sort of laughs that I only get from characters such as Brent and Partridge. This is because David Brent is a stellar character. At his worst, Brent will always still be funny but believe me, this is him at his worst.
He’s still a mess that spirals into a crescendo of awkward and some well-timed glances to the camera still hit the mark completely but do expect to see David Brent the caricature, as opposed to David Brent the character – a sort of high-pitched strained chuckle is a new gesture that he’s taken on that is used in literally every scene and feels well-worn about five minutes into the movie.
For the unique brand of dry, British laughs alone, it’s an okay movie. A terrible off-shoot of The Office, but still an okay movie. Perhaps, though, an okay movie is the best we could have hoped for from a solo Gervais outing, warming up a thirteen year old character that was perfect where he was left. But, you have to question, if the best we could have hoped for was an ‘okay movie’, was it a movie worth making in the first place?
Have you seen the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!