'David Brent: Life on the Road': Film Review

This isn't Spinal Tap.

Ricky Gervais revives his most infamous comic character in a mock documentary about David Brent’s attempts to relaunch his career as a rock singer.

A tragicomic clown afflicted by a toe-curling lack of self-awareness, David Brent was the screen alter ego that transformed Ricky Gervais into a multiple award-winning transatlantic superstar. He was born 15 years ago on the BBC television hit The Office, which spawned a superlative U.S. remake and earned its creator a fruitful second career in Hollywood. Now, over a decade since Brent was last seen onscreen, the master of cringe-making social satire has revived his most famous creation in this self-written, self-directed movie update. Life on the Road opens theatrically in Britain next week ahead of its U.S. launch on Netflix, which also handled the recent Gervais-directed Special Correspondents.

Filmed in the same mock-documentary style as its TV ancestor, Life on the Road picks up Brent’s story today. Now around 50, he has been through a nervous breakdown and midlife crisis, but his desperate need for validation remains. Aside from adding a musical dimension, the original show’s tone, rhythm and essential ingredients remain unchanged. Which means this comeback will be comforting to loyal veteran fans, but disappointing to anyone hoping Gervais might have rediscovered his sharp-witted mojo after several years of diminishing laughs and misfiring star vehicles.

Gervais might reasonably expect a warm welcome for Brent’s film comeback, given the successful big-screen transfers enjoyed by Sacha Baron Cohen with his Borat and Bruno characters, Steve Coogan with Alan Partridge and Jennifer Saunders with her recent reboot of Absolutely Fabulous. But all of these examples expanded on their TV blueprints, adding celebrity cameos, exotic locations and more cinematic plotlines. Life on the Road sticks largely in the same limited emotional and geographical zone as its BBC blueprint, feeling more like an extended TV special than a movie.

Though Gervais claims Life on the Road is not a direct spinoff of The Office, the fly-on-the-wall style is identical and the dramatic setup is very similar. Brent is now a traveling salesmen for a hygiene products company based in Slough, the same facelessly mundane London commuter town as his previous job. As before, his long-suffering co-workers treat him as a pitiable punchbag, especially the boorish Jezza (Andrew Brooke). But Brent also has his secret admirers, notably among the more patient and empathetic female staff.

Brent also has a new sidekick in the shape of mixed-race rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), who he shamelessly deploys as an alibi any time his tasteless jokes stray into casual racism. Johnson also is a fringe member of Brent’s lame rock band Foregone Conclusion, a ramshackle bunch of hired hands on whom he is vainly pinning his desperate last-ditch hopes of stardom. But the wannabe rocker’s self-funded tour inevitably descends into an expensive farce as audiences and record company talent scouts stay away. Even his own bandmembers shun him unless he actually pays them to share a drink with him.

Brent remains a sharp comic creation, and it is pleasing to see Gervais revive his signature tics with gusto: the nervy broken sentences, that wheezing Batman-villain laugh, all those faux-knowing glances to camera. Life on the Road contains a few laugh-out-loud moments and a handful of excellent comic songs, notably the excruciating anti-racism anthems "Equality Street" and "Native American." Fictionalized mockumentaries about self-deluded rock musicians have become something of a cliché since This Is Spinal Tap defined the formula over 30 years ago, but Gervais was both a short-lived pop star and band manager before moving into comedy, so he gets many of the nuances right. Chris Martin of Coldplay had a minor hand in the music, and makes a brief vocal cameo during the end credits.

That said, Gervais does little new here with the character or the format. Perhaps the sole key development is that he previously only aspired to make us understand Brent’s grating persona, whereas this time around he truly wants us to love him. To this end, he recasts his screen alter ego as a Chaplin-esque little guy with big dreams, crudely sketching his mockers as macho bullies and his female champions as nurturing angels who can see the vulnerable man-child behind the clumsy joker. Such brazen attempts to sway our sentiments feel a little forced, and may even reflect how Gervais himself reacts to criticism of his purposely offensive humor.

The Office still stands up as the nearest Gervais has yet come to creating a bona fide comedy masterpiece, possibly due to the ensemble chemistry between the whole creative team, which included co-writer Stephen Merchant and breakout co-star Martin Freeman. This time around, Gervais is sole writer, director and star, and keeps the focus firmly on himself. His supporting players are mostly unknowns or minor British TV talents, all sketchy ciphers compared to Brent.

Consequently, much of Life on the Road feels like the debut solo album by the lead singer of a once successful band, who is now surrounded by paid session musicians unwilling to challenge the boss over his substandard, self-indulgent coasting. Which, ironically, is pretty much the plot of this film. David Brent remains an enduring comic grotesque, but this sporadically amusing big-screen resurrection is more cash-in reunion tour than killer comeback album.

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: BBC Films, Entertainment One
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon
Director-screenwriter: Ricky Gervais
Producers: Ricky Gervais, Charlie Hanson
Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
Editor: Gary Dollner

Not rated, 96 minutes