Ricky Gervais is back in all his cringeful glory as David Brent in Life on the Road. It wasn’t a return people were clamouring for but it will be welcomed by Gervais’ myriad of fans nonetheless. After creating and starring in the huge critical success that is The Office, Gervais has plucked antagonist David Brent from that series to star in his brand new mockumentary-styled feature.
Acknowledging the years passed, Brent has long ago become redundant as Office Manager. Which disappointingly means no cameos or appearances from any actors from the original series. Brent is now working as a travelling salesman for fictional company Lavichem, and being followed by a new camera crew. After a quick introductory tour over his new office and co workers, Brent sets off on a self-funded vanity tour to fulfill his dreams of becoming a popular musician. He is joined by aspiring rapper Dom (played by real life rapper and comedian Doc Brown) who Brent ostensibly manages. On Brent’s dime Dom supports David on stage by adding rhymes to the hilariously politically incorrect songs.
Typically, things go terribly for Brent. Discontent with his lot in life he continually strives to become something more than himself. It’s this disconnect in how Brent sees himself that Gervais manages to exploit for non-stop wince-inducing humor. Gervais’ acute sense of today’s cultural sensibilities allows him to trample over political correctness in a mostly inoffensive manner. Brent is oblivious to the sensitivities of race, sex and culture. After being admonished for sexism by his HR manager, Brent arranges for Dom to show up in the office to prove to everyone how on board he is with political correctness by having a black friend. The cast are either great actors or genuinely uncomfortable; either way there are both nervous and belly laughs to be had aplenty.
This onslaught of cringe humour unfortunately becomes something of a double-edged sword for Gervais’ film. It’s quite easy to become overcome by long stretches of stomach-churning embarrassment. It is at times reminiscent of an Ali G or John Safran sketch that drags on beyond a sweet spot of humour. The body yearns for a cessation of awkward tension.
Ultimately Brent finds redemption not in his music but in his kind heart. It’s a theme prevalent in Gervais’ works and at the foreground of Life on the Road. Previously Gervais’ TV efforts have balanced heart and humour more equitably. In this film the humour is more like a blitz, leaving the central theme neglected. In turn the emotional bow wrapped around the ending of the movie feels contrived. With only cursory explorations of the other characters the connections aren’t wholly legitimate. One can’t help but wonder if the absence of co-creator and co-writer of The Office Stephen Merchant has had an adverse result on the end product. Together they produced some of the greatest humour to come out of Britain in the 21st century in podcasts and television. (The two are currently on indefinite hiatus.)
Regardless of the film’s flaws it’s hard to fault the overall product too heavily. The plethora of mostly hit gags is more than enough reason to see Life on the Road. The vacuum Brent creates with his foot in his mouth is filled with squirms and abundant laughs. It should be noted for the die-hards that this definitely isn’t an Office continuation. Brent is now Gervais’ vehicle for comment on a culture determined to be inoffensive, and he both challenges and lauds this attitude with great comedy expertise. The new Brent is more humanised, no longer ruling from the manager’s chair, and his take home message of selflessness and compassion as its own reward is an inspired one.
Life on the Road is in cinemas from 25th August through Entertainment One.