Possibly the most I've ever laughed and cringed in one sitting. While a little slow in parts, like the travel shots, still some of Gervais' best work.
Poor David Brent. If we remember The Office episode where he tries to start his pop career, he failed to chart in the top 100 and barely sold any CDs. When we see him in Life on the Road, he’s 55, single, and working as a travelling salesman with Lavichem, a cleaning and ladies’ personal hygiene products company. Anyone else you’d think would have given up, but this is David Brent, future rock and roll star who just wants you to laugh at his jokes.
I know I’ve painted quite a pathetic sounding character but you can’t help but love Brent, who really does just want to improve people’s days, even if he does make an idiot out of himself most of the time. He has this constant need to be acknowledged as funny and skilled but is normally just seen as pretentious and awkward. In Life on the Road he’s still got the dream of being a rock star and is self-financing a tour with his band, ‘Foregone Conclusion’. Except the band are session musicians who are just interested in the money. There’s also rapper Dom (Ben Bailey Smith) who just wants to get some street cred, and actually ends up being more popular than the band. Brent cashes in his pensions and takes unpaid leave to try and fulfill his dream, and it really is just beautifully cringey to watch.
It’s the same mockumentary style as The Office was, but this is much more about his personal life. He never seems to understand that the reason why the band are embarrassed by him and won’t spend time with him unless they’re getting paid is because he sees himself as this intelligent, PC man who is actually incredibly offensive to ethnic minorities, disabled people and women. But everyone knows who knows him and us, the audience, know that they don’t come from a place of malice – he’s just a naive and slightly self-delusional man, a very ordinary person trying to achieve something he isn’t capable of doing. Gervais said that “It’s about how he coped with fame and how he’s still obsessed with it and how he still wants it even though it’s not his friend – and nor is the camera. He thinks it will be different”.
And obviously it is a comedy film. He’s got a comedic sidekick at work, Nigel (Tom Bennett), a lovestruck colleague Pauline (Jo Hartley), and a much needed therapist (Nina Sosanya). You laugh and cringe when he’s singing about Native Americans and nobody finds it funny, when the band ask to be paid £25 an hour each to go for a drink with him, and when he tries to pull and she eats the whole minibar. But the thing that makes this film that much deeper than The Office is you actually feel sorry for Brent more than you did previously. Twelve years later, he’s the same man, post-breakdown and in a lower ranked job, chasing a failing dream. And the band do soften towards the end and begin to feel sorry for him, when reminiscing about the tour they don’t think it was really that bad. And I think they could all see how passionate he was about it – his road manager Dan (Tom Basden) knows that Brent has probably spent tens of thousands on the tour and pays for the expensive fake snow that he tells Brent not to spend money on just to make him happy.
But I think the takeaway from this is that at least he’s trying to do what he loves. The Office was about people turning 30 and 40 and not knowing what to do with their lives. Even though he’s surrounded by people who are more successful than him, he says at the end “I don’t need to be a rock star, I can live without being a success but I couldn’t have lived without trying”. While the cameras haven’t done for him what Scorsese did with The Rolling Stones, he doesn’t mind. He’s just happy having done what he loves doing.
David Brent: Life on the Road (2016), directed by Ricky Gervais, is distributed by Entertainment One, certificate 15.