Life for Brent
Through one of those obscure processes not accessible to the likes of you and me, it seems that the back end of August has been designated that time in the calendar when films based on British TV sitcoms get released – the hipper, edgier ones, at least, for films cashing in on cosy old favourites like Dad's Army and Absolutely Fabulous are seemingly permitted to wander off into the world at any old time. If we're honest, the revival in this particular form is most likely down to the wholly unexpected success of the movie version of The Inbetweeners five years ago, but a revival there definitely has been.
Not much like The Inbetweeners and rather more like 2013's Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa comes the latest attempt at this sort of thing, David Brent: Life on the Road, written, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais. Gervais is insistent that this film is not 'an Office movie', despite the fact that it shares its central character with the BBC sitcom The Office (2001-3), the show which brought Gervais to stardom. Hmm, well. The thing about Alpha Papa was that it felt (to me at least) like a film that had missed its natural moment by a few years, and one in fact made solely because Coogan's Hollywood career was showing signs of faltering and the actor was in need of a guaranteed hit. Is the same true of Gervais' adventures in Hollywood? Hard to say, I suppose, but I don't recall seeing him making a prominent appearance since Muppets Most Wanted.
Anyway – The Office is so old now that it may in fact have started before I wrote my first internet film review, and was a deadpan parody of the then-ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall docu-soap genre. It focused primarily on David Brent (Gervais himself), the manager of a paper merchants in Slough. Brent almost instantly became an iconic comedy grotesque, a marginally competent manager afflicted with a wholly unwarranted belief in his ability as a great entertainer, and crippled by a pathological need to be liked by and popular with everyone around him.
Not quite the stuff of comfortable comedy, as you can probably imagine or recall. Watching Brent/Gervais crucify himself in the most cringeworthy manner imaginable worked in thirty-minute chunks, from the comfort of an armchair, but ninety minutes? In a cinema? Without the other, somewhat more sympathetic characters?
The conceit of the film is that Brent has once again been approached by a documentary crew, who want to make a 'where are they now'-type film. However, Brent decides to turn this into a rockumentary about himself, and taking a break from his current job as a sales rep for cleaning products, where he is largely surrounded by people who pity and despise him, goes off on a tour of the length and breadth of the Slough area with a group of hired session musicians, who also pity and despise him. Brent seeks to establish himself as a rock star, fronting the band Foregone Conclusion, cashing in his pension to do so. Also along is Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), a genuinely talented young rapper who has somehow fallen into Brent's orbit and is dragged along in a state of bemusement.
David Brent's chances of realising his dream are not helped by the material he opts to present on his tour, for most of his set consists of well-intentioned but monumentally inappropriate songs dealing with topics such as a brief romance with a gypsy (sample lyric: 'She said "Yes, the sex is free/But the heather's a pound"'), the plight of Native Americans ('Don't call us Indians/We're more south Eurasians crossed with Siberians') and the problems of disabled people ('You might have to feed the worse ones through a straw'). The joke, of course, is that he is fundamentally well-meaning, but completely hopeless; the audience is intended to be laughing at him rather than with him throughout.
So, this is essentially a film about a rather desperate and pathetic man throwing away his life savings in pursuit of a ridiculous, impossible dream. Whose idea of a comedy is this? Well, I'm still not sure that ninety minutes of virtually undiluted Brent is really a good idea – at least in the TV show you had the bits with Gareth, Dawn and Tim to look forward to – especially when it's not as if there aren't other capable folk in the film who could have shared some of the load. I was particularly sorry not to see more of Brent's useless publicist, played by Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk).
But, if the idea of sitting for an hour and a half in a whole-body clench peering at the screen through the gaps between your fingers doesn't put you off, there is much to entertain and enjoy here. Some of the business is a bit predictable, as is the plot, but Ricky Gervais remains a clearly extremely smart guy who can take this kind of comedy of transgression and embarrassment as far as he possibly can. The songs are extremely funny (no sign of Free Love Freeway, surprisingly enough), as well as sometimes being rather catchy too (I was humming the chorus to Native American all the way home on the bus). In fact, one of the neatest bits of sleight-of-hand he pulls off is managing to make Brent's stage performances ridiculous while still suggesting that Gervais himself might well have some talent as a musical performer. His talents as a writer-director and actor are surely in no doubt: he gives an impressively subtle performance, with a desperate, forlorn sadness creeping into his eyes even as Brent is grinning cheesily away.
(Apparently record companies are pursuing Gervais with a view to making him go on an actual tour in-character as Brent, singing these songs. I will be slightly surprised if this happens, not least because that would surely be missing the point, and run the risk of having them taken non-ironically by people who hold exactly the views Gervais is trying to satirise. But we'll see.)
I'm still not sure it really qualifies as a comedy though, given how excruciatingly uncomfortable much of the film is to watch. If Gervais has any kind of message, it seems to be that society has got nastier and more vicious in the last fifteen years, and this is reflected in Brent's treatment by the people around him. The really sad thing is how much of it rings true, as well. Given that this is the case, the film has to work very hard to come up with an ending that isn't totally downbeat and offers the prospect of some kind of redemption and happiness for Brent without seeming totally contrived and improbable. It does so, but only just; you really have to cut the film a bit of slack here.
As I admit fairly frequently, not many modern comedies genuinely manage to get a laugh out of me, but David Brent: Life on the Road did so. Maybe this was partly because I still retain some affection for The Office, which struck many chords with me at the time (I have to work hard to keep my own Brentish tendencies under tight control), but I hope it's also because this is a very clever, well-observed film made by someone who knows exactly what he's doing. If this is Ricky Gervais' last outing as David Brent, then he does the character justice, as well as hopefully reminding the world what a singular comic talent he possesses. I'm very certain this film won't be everyone's cup of tea, but that doesn't stop it from being rather impressive in its own way.