Ricky Gervais is what you might call an acquired taste. He has been known to let his mouth get him into trouble, but however outspoken and opinionated he might be, there’s one thing that cannot be taken away from him, and that’s his writing talent.
His first big exposure was The Office, a somewhat ground-breaking sitcom in its own right, and the spawning point for this film, he then moved on to shows like Extras and Derek. However, his biggest creation is arguably his character from The Office, David Brent.
Brent is a concentration of all the worst traits a boss can have. Overly confident and feigning concern about his team to make himself look better, he was played to look foolish, yet recognisable, everyone has had a boss they hate, and Brent was an exemplar of that.
So, over a decade on, Gervais revisits his most famous character, but under different circumstances…
Fifteen years after finding fame on The Office, David Brent is once again chasing fame. He takes time off work to go on a music tour, one last shot at the ‘big time’ he feels he deserves. He brings a band along for the journey, as well as a promising young rapper, who he is supposed to manage.
The Office was, for want of a better term, cringe humour. You cringed at whatever David Brent did or said, but in a way that made you laugh. To some, this is unbearable to watch, and to others, it’s comedy gold. It has since had a life outside The Office, Peep Show is perhaps the best example, but no character comes close to being as cringingly hilarious as David Brent.
The real winner of the character is the sincerity in which Gervais plays him. It would be easy to overplay his ignorance, but he subtly makes the character believable by having the character BELIEVE what he says and does. He doesn’t intend to offend people, but he also doesn’t realise WHY he is offending someone. He believes in his own hype, even if no-one else does.
Life on the Road is not Gervais’ best work, not by a long-shot, and truth be told, it’s a bit of an odd duck. You see, he’s known for moving on from past characters and projects, always just making two series and a special, each of his series has followed this pattern, it is only Brent he has re-visited. There could be many reasons for this, of course, but it also makes the film feel derivative of the original series. It feels like we’ve already seen Brent at his best (or worst) so giving us more takes some of the shine off the characters appeal.
Not to say that there’s no fun to be had. Some genuinely great moments are on-par with The Office, specifically in his interactions with his newest co-workers. That and the songs in the film offer some real surprises in both their quality and their humour.
Some represent Brent’s heavy-handed attempts to be seen as the ‘nice guy’ songs like ‘Please Don’t Make Fun of Disableds’ and no, I didn’t make that title up, again these are not played as jokes by Gervais, it’s pretty clear that Brent takes these songs very seriously, as he does with his music career, we know he’s terrible, his band knows he’s terrible, but he doesn’t, and that’s what makes it so funny.
I genuinely don’t think anyone could direct Gervais’ writing other than Ricky himself, however, and although this is not his best work as a director (or as a writer, After Life and Derek both trump this by a fair distance) there is a skill in his shots, and because he knows the character and material so well, he knows how to get the best out of them like no-one else. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Gervais unless he’s directing himself, he’s just that kind of performer.
A surprise gem in this film is Ben Bailey Smith, who is best known as writer/rapper Doc Brown, who plays Brent’s protégé in this film, but is shown to be a superior performer in every conceivable way, he adds a new dimension to the film and to Brent’s character, he also provides the soundtracks best track; Cards We’re Dealt, which is all of his character’s frustrations emerging in rap form, it’s a delight.
In conclusion then, while it is nowhere near prime Gervais material, it is still fun to spend time with the Brent character, and it offers just enough original scenarios and laughs to not feel like a cash-grab. Think of it as cinematic popcorn, you can consume it and enjoy it, but you’re not likely to think much about it afterwards.