So, I’ve never been a fan of cringe comedy. Most of what’s pushed out there and labelled as ‘comedy’ usually makes me embarrassed or annoyed rather than make me laugh. It’s quite interesting, then, that I’m actually a really big fan of the UK version of The Office, the mockumentary office-based sitcom from 2001-2003 that launched the mainstream career of one Ricky Gervais. If I were to guess on the roots of its success, it’s likely due to its characters and setting. You feel like you know these people; self-important but unaware David Brent, likeable but frustrated Tim, similarly frustrated but playful Dawn, even Gareth! And while they certainly contrived moments for comedy (all sitcoms do), it just fit in more naturally with the setting and allowed the show a sense of gravity.
Gervais decided to revive his own character from the show, Brent, in a series of admittedly funny guitar teaching skits on YouTube, and now he’s got his own spin-off movie divorced from everything else from The Office. While the faux-documentary style is still there, and even brief snippets of an office, the plot focuses on Brent, 15 years after he was fired, trying to make it as a rock star by organising a tour around local venues.
The reason I brought up The Office is because what made Brent work there is that he was surrounded by such strong characters. I wouldn’t even call him the heart of the show (Tim and Dawn were), even if he’s the most memorable character. Having the well-intentioned but socially clumsy and narcissistic Brent get into incredibly stupid scenarios to prove his own greatness isn’t nearly as entertaining when they’re not at the annoyance of characters we care about. You also run the risk of focusing too much on Brent, which gets a bit much (it’s why his shorter YouTube skits work a lot better). And yeah, the worst stuff in Life on the Road mostly focuses on Brent on his own doing something try-hard and stupid.
It isn’t unsalvageable by any means, however. This film crew seem as cruel as the last, eagerly awaiting horrific embarrassments from the clueless Brent to get on film. While it takes a while to get going, some of the antics can be quite funny. There is one other character in it outside of Brent who feels fleshed out, Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey ‘Doc Brown’ Smith), who adds a lot of levity to the larger-than-life Brent and actually has a (albeit predictable) arc. You buy their friendship.
The highlight is easily the songs. They’re nearly always hilarious and fit the character so well. They’re actually pretty fun to listen to and the lyrics are a hoot in how obliviously offensive and really naft they are; they truly reflect on the menial, unexciting life the lead has. It works why the audiences would react negatively to them (some of their reactions are pure gold), but I’d honestly buy the soundtrack I enjoyed them so much.
Probably the most tacked on part is the more emotional elements. While it was a nice continuation of Brent’s character, and it really does make him more sympathetic than he ever was in the show, a lot of the time they fail to hit when they need to. This is especially problematic at the end where everything just piles on with no real build up. I just don’t buy anything that happens within the last 15 or so minutes.
Overall, David Brent: Life on the Road may interest you if you’re a fan of The Office or Gervais work as a whole. It’s not completely horrible, and while it’s a bit too flatly directed, and inconsistent in its jokes and tone to let the script make up for that, it does have some hilarious moments and it doesn’t feel too forced a continuation of this character’s story. If you’re not a fan, you’ll likely cringe your way through it.