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David Brent: Life on the Road

February 19, 2017

David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)
Director: Ricky Gervais
Actors: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden

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Synopsis: David Brent (Ricky Gervais) takes extended leave from his dowdy sales job so he can tour with his group “Foregone Conclusions”: a band made up of freelance musicians Brent is subsidising.

Review: Ricky Gervais’ cinematic trotting out of his seminal creation, David Brent, isn’t altogether a surprise given the sheer commercial potential of any ‘Brentian’ project. It was perhaps also inevitable that the law of diminishing returns regarding Gervais’ recent TV and cinematic fare would ultimately take him on an ever-decreasing circle that led back to Brent.

The predictable tactic when transplanting a sitcom to the big screen is to craft a “high concept” that usually revolves around sending the characters to some atypical location: think of the Inbetweener boys going to Malia and Australia respectively in their two cinematic efforts; Kevin and Perry, of course, went to Ibiza; and the Sex and the City ladies were whisked off in remarkably bogus fashion to Abu Dhabi for their second feature-length drama. Gervais, predictably given his biographical influence on Brent wanting to be an “entertainer” and a “singer-songwriter”, sends his alter-ego out on a treadmill of disappointing, underpromoted ‘gigs’ in palookaville locations around the M25. This naturally – Phoenix Nights-style – offers Gervais the opportunity to luxuriate in the deludedness and pathos of Brent, but it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what made his character great in the first place. Brent’s genius was as a ‘clown’ reflecting back the excruciating banality of our recognisable office and commercial culture – and though some social truisms do still transmit through Brent’s mishaps ‘on the road’, it feels like Gervais is trying to bend the material too much to his own whims.

Betraying the fact that Gervais misappropriated his character this time is his over-use of Brent’s signature, awkward, “high-pitched” squeal, which worked best as a delayed, exquisite moment of comic catharsis, but is flogged far too much in this film. Also, some of Gervais’ thematising of the Brent character becomes too obvious: especially supposedly witty flashback scenes with the psychiatrist that really play as didactic proselytising of the ‘meaning’ of Brent’s behaviour.

At its best, Gervais plays into the darker side of Brent – the scene where his bandmate, Dom, successfully wows the crowd in the background is a Gervais masterclass as Brent hyperactively seethes in the foreground: his sneer and sarcastic pointing like a demented and redundant Lear is pitch-perfect acting. Also, Brent nicely undercuts the expected pay-off when he invites two fat women back to his hotel room. They clear out his mini bar and one of them takes advantage of a free bed for a night, but instead of putting his foot in with an insensitive comment (which would be the expected Brent response), he accepts it all with a sang-froid and defeatism which feels much more truthful about where Brent might be as a man in his early fifties. It’s proof that there is still a bit of magic in the David Brent persona, but it really would be best now if Gervais left those moments to perpetuity and tried to mine the original inspiration of Brent for something genuinely new, cutting edge and challenging. (February 2017)

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