David Brent just wants to be liked. Scratch that, loved. By everyone. All the time. That’s the driving premise behind the original UK version of The Office. Sure, there’s the out-of-sync romance and professional paralysis of Tim and Dawn, the daily antics of the oddball employees at the struggling Slough branch of Wernham Hogg, and the peculiarity that a paper company has been chosen as the subject for a BBC2 documentary, but there in the program’s spotlight, refusing to be upstaged, giggles Brent, the self-described “friend first, boss second. Probably an entertainer third.” The show’s humor, of course, results from Brent’s obsession with pleasing others while being totally oblivious to just how offensive, inappropriate, and desperate his behavior comes across. In its time, The Office filled a void in television comedy on both sides of the pond, pushing beyond certain boundaries and getting away with it precisely because the culprit, Brent, had zero understanding of boundaries.
David Brent: Life on the Road, the latest Ricky Gervais and Netflix partnership, finds the old documentary crew catching up with Brent — now a toiletries sales rep for Lavichem (“Tampons, one size fits all. No, it doesn’t, actually. Sadly.”) — as he embarks on his latest quest for the spotlight: a rock and roll tour. For fans of The Office, it’s not that surprising a premise. “People know I’m rock and roll through and through,” Brent once boasted to the BBC2 documentary film crew. He’s also hilariously hijacked a customer service workshop by playing songs on guitar by his former band, Foregone Conclusion; dropped 42,000 quid on recording and releasing a failed cover single of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”; and even published an extremely technical instructional YouTube series called Learn Guitar with David Brent. So, it’s not shocking that the former regional manager would return to his rocking roots after being made redundant by Wernham Hogg. However, the film does raise a number of questions: Namely, can David Brent carry an entire movie without the hijinks and support of his former Slough office mates? Quiz answer: better than expected.
A number of great bits emerge as the ex-boss does his damnedest in middle age to become The Boss. Most of the comedy stems from Brent having no more a clue about organizing a tour than he had about managing an office. His Foregone Conclusion reunion doesn’t find him getting the old band back together but rather hiring session musicians and an engineer as bandmates and teaming with undiscovered rapper Dom Johnson because he figures to capitalize on the cultural cache of having a “black, well, mixed-race” collaborator aboard. Apart from band personnel, Brent dumps thousands on hotels (even though the entire tour is near his house), a tour bus that could accommodate the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (which the band immediately banishes him from), a nympho publicist, a risque photo shoot, a lethal t-shirt cannon, and as much of a “Berkshire” tattoo as an ink slinger can muster before Brent passes out (FYI: “Berk”). At one point, Dan the sound engineer turns to Dom and says, “This is like Brewster’s Millions,” the painful kicker being that if anybody at all bothers to show up for these concerts, it’s an audience who looks upon Brent with as much bewilderment as his bandmates.
In any comedy about a band, the laughs can’t simply rely on the music being awful. As witnessed before, Gervais can in fact sing and play a bit. The humor here comes as a well-meaning Brent tries to write topical songs that’ll touch hearts while possessing songwriting instincts that mimic his knack for keeping PC. The result is setlists that play out like Diversity Day gone terribly wrong. When not working the crowd with his TMI-style of stage banter and band intros (“As of now, this dude has not raped anyone”), Brent belts out epics pleading for kindness towards the disabled (post-dedicated to an audience member in a wheelchair), reggae-flavored jams about equality (“Black people aren’t crazy/ Fat people aren’t lazy/ And dwarfs aren’t babies,” Dom raps), and PSAs bringing attention to the plight of Native Americans (Dom hiding backstage in stereotypical Indian headdress). And the entire spectacle is sold perfectly by the rest of the band, as they look on in disbelief, cringe at what they witness, and try to feign enthusiasm for their fearless leader’s moronic compositions.
The tour itinerary does provide just enough structure to keep the film afloat with only a few lulls, and Brent remains hilarious in the mockumentary style, always making matters worse when he’s aware of the camera. But the fact remains that David Brent is a character who grates — that’s his nature and appeal. Gervais falls back into Brent’s platforms brilliantly here, nailing everything from the character’s wheezing giggle to his on-the-spot rationalizing (“Not sexist,” “Not racist”), but 90-plus minutes of this exhausting act (especially without other story lines to act as buffers between debacles) does make Life on the Road a bit of an endurance trial. Americans might consider the Michael Scott corollary: As beloved as Steve Carell’s character is, does an hour and a half of Scott’s manic shtick sound like the smoothest watch? We all might understandably put a report on file with Toby Flenderson after enduring that.
But Life on the Road ultimately makes good in a way that few comedy films based on television characters do. Perhaps part of that owes to Gervais’ not-so-subtle, yet still powerful, insights into David Brent. He may be uncouth, untactful, and a bit of a prat, but there’s also something dignified in Brent’s sincerity and willingness to lick his wounds and climb back onstage each time he bombs in life. By the film’s end, the same tourmates who billed the singer to drink beer with them happily clink glasses with him gratis, and a handful of co-workers at Lavichem come to Brent’s defense when others mock his rock and roll dreams. It’s not that Brent has necessarily changed much during the tour; it’s that those around him have finally come around. If we have to live in a world so far up its own ass, maybe a bloke who brings a little sparkle and laughter to the workplace isn’t the worst problem.
Basically, we kinda like the bastard. Sue us.