Ricky Gervais rose to prominence playing the obnoxious boss David Brent on the British version of The Office which he created with longtime writing partner Stephen Merchant. Brent was a character of immense unearned confidence and his moronic exploits led to a level of cringeworthy humor that few others have been able to achieve. The Office remains the high-water mark of Gervais’ career and his work has since gone through a noticeable decline since he and Merchant stopped working together in 2013. Perhaps sensing a waning popularity, Gervais has brought back his most iconic character in David Brent: Life on the Road, which follows the character as he takes a sabbatical from his job in order to follow his dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom with his band Forgone Conclusion. While there are moments that garner laughs in Life on the Road, the movie lacks even a fraction of the bite found in the weakest episode of The Office as the film seems like a desperate attempt at regaining some bygone relevance.
Since we last saw David Brent (Gervais), he’s taken up a new job as a salesman hawking feminine hygiene products on the road. We see Brent make inappropriate jokes while trying to close a deal, illustrating that the character hasn’t changed a bit since the conclusion of The Office. In his new office, Brent is obnoxious as ever, cracking even more inappropriate jokes that are sexist and racist in nature. Half of his co-workers are repelled by him and the other half are sympathetic to the lovable loser. Brent is going to use his accumulated savings to fund a tour of his old band Forgone Conclusion, though he’s unable to recruit any of his former bandmates instead paying out of pocket for young musicians to accompany him. Over time, David Brent has befriended rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown) and has used his influence to get the young rapper to join him onstage. Travelling across England with his band and staying in various hotels is costing David a fortune and the audience reactions seem to indicate that all the expenses were for naught as Foregone Conclusion’s demise is itself a foregone conclusion despite the dreams of its leader.
The Office was driven by the antics and idiocy of David Brent but there was always supporting characters that could earn laughs while taking the spotlight off Brent himself. In a movie where he’s the main character, the obnoxiousness of the character becomes increasingly grating and the supporting characters here aren’t given the depth to counteract Brent’s boorish behavior. And yet Gervais want the audience to feel sympathetic for this character that basically has no redeeming qualities. There’s a desire to have it both ways with David Brent – funny because he’s pathetic and obnoxious but sympathetic for the exact same reasons. It just doesn’t work as intended. Gervais tries to make us feel sorry for Brent because his bandmates have no desire to socialize with him and yet watching the movie unfold there’s not a single thing to dissuade this notion in the slightest.
As a writer and director, Ricky Gervais is in dire need of collaborator to help him bring his ideas to life without allowing Gervais to fall into his worse tendencies. Lacking the collaboration of Stephen Merchant has hurt his work here and in his previous effort Special Correspondents. Hard as he tries, Gervais appears to be incapable of finding that sweet spot between heartfelt sentimentality and acerbic, cringeworthy humor. David Brent may be the character that made Ricky Gervais a comedic star, but David Brent: Life on the Road is just another example as to why that star has been rapidly fading.
David Brent: Life on the Road debuts exclusively on Netflix on February 10th, 2017.