David Brent has experienced all manner of humiliations – accidentally headbutting a potential secretary, getting fired on camera, the grunting majesty of The Dance – but as he wanders through this fitfully funny big screen resurrection you feel sorry for him for an entirely new reason. Slough’s premier chilled-out entertainer has been denied his perfect ending.
15 years after the first series of The Office started – and nearly 13 after it concluded with a pair of peerless festive specials – Brent has been revived, against the odds, as the subject of his own feature-length mock rockumentary. Ricky Gervais, inspired by bringing the character back for a 2013 Red Nose Day special and resultant YouTube series, has gone back on his declaration that Brent wouldn’t return with characteristic bullishness (“I’ve changed my mind”) and understandably thrust one of modern comedy’s most enduring characters into a post-Inbetweeners Movie age. But Life on the Road can never quite escape unfavourable comparison to that first, unimprovable finale and, in the end, it mostly feels like a faint photocopy of what we’ve seen before.
That said, it starts strongly. Gervais, directing from his own script, deploys the rollicking title track (“Then to Gloucester/I get a Costa”) to reintroduce Brent in his new guise as a sales rep at Slough cleaning products company Lavichem. The premise is quickly established: despite a fresh stable of colleagues (including a Gareth Keenan-like cohort called Nigel), Wernham Hogg’s former regional manager is cashing in some annual leave and a good chunk of his pension fund to head out on a three week tour of the M4 corridor. And, yet again, he’s invited documentary cameras along for the ride.
The scenes where Brent frantically assembles his touring team – including Tom Basden’s sound engineer, a rebooted version of his band Foregone Conclusion and Ben Bailey Smith, reviving his straight man role as rapper Dom Johnson from the 2013 sketch – are hugely funny in that familiar, arm-gnawingly awkward way. The character of Brent still fits Gervais like an old leather jacket and those recognisable tics (the furtive glance at the camera, the wheezing nervous laugh, the clenched overbite) pack an extra wallop of desperation as Foregone Conclusion’s frontman effectively pays younger men to hang around with him while he frantically chases a disappearing dream.
Slough’s premier chilled-out entertainer has been denied his perfect ending.
But once Brent and the band hit the road and actually start playing to half-empty crowds a lot of the laughs dry up. “Edgy” gags about race become a crutch, comic beats from The Office are lifted wholesale and a high quantity of the telegraphed punchlines seem to operate on the principle that the sight of a heavy set woman is the funniest thing in the world. The song performances – including an excruciating rendition of Please Don’t Make Fun Of The Disableds – still raise a dark chuckle but there’s the inescapable sense of a scramble to fill the 98 minutes and the presence of ex-Razorlight musician Andy Burrows (who plays a member of the band and wrote Brent’s tracks with Gervais) does little to detract from the feeling that you’re watching, well, an extended charity sketch.
Then there’s the ending. A lurch to trowelled-on bathos that packs familiar emotional crescendos and actually brings to mind a different Gervais vehicle known more for its overt sentimentality. And then it hits you. At its worst, Life on the Road may just be a Derek film, delivered by stealth.