There are a lot of similarities between David Brent, Ricky Gervais’ bumbling, overcompensating dolt boss at the center of the original BBC Two mockumentary “The Office,” and “David Brent: Life on the Road,” the character’s first feature-length spin-off. They both chase reformed glory well past their prime, and they both often feel more uncomfortably sad than thornily hilarious these days. But David Brent and ‘David Brent’ are both well aware of their struggles, whether they admit them openly or not, and rather than wallow or give up, they persist against their better judgments. For Brent, the character, it’s an absolute disaster, as one would imagine from someone still chasing his music career well into middle age. For ‘Brent,’ the movie, however, it’s a squeamishly funny, deeply heartfelt success.
Written and directed exclusively by Gervais, with “The Office” co-creator Stephen Merchant nowhere to be found in this cinematic continuation, ‘Life on the Road’ picks up exactly where one might expect to find Brent over 15 years later. Still hoping to jumpstart his failing music career, Brent may be a lowly sales representative during work hours, but his band Foregone Conclusion remains the dazzling star twinkling in his aging eyes. Believing fame is still just around the corner, Brent takes the returning documentary crew behind-the-scenes on tour, as he performs a number of embarrassing gigs in a fleeting attempt to earn a record deal. Providing the funds for everything, from the tour bus which he can’t ride (the band members claim there’s no room), to the hotel rooms he doesn’t need to rent (most, if not all, of the concerts are in driving range from their respective houses, which the band never fails to tell Brent), to the drinks he purchases in a bid for companionship with his bandmates, Brent digs deep into his deflating life savings in a pathetically desperate attempt to make it big. Of course, everything fails spectacularly.
As per usual, Brent is always dipping his toes closer to tragedy than hilarity. At one point, a band member even admits, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” regarding Brent’s excruciating and deeply sad misadventures. Thankfully, Gervais still knows how to keep Brent painfully hilarious, even amidst unending misery. Though Brent carries more darkness, internal pain, mental anguish and self-loathing than ever, Gervais finds a finely-tuned balance between Brent’s sorrow and chagrin. He never focuses too much on his despair to make the laughs completely ill-gained, yet the creator doesn’t make Brent’s tribulations too goofy to take away from the unavoidable melancholy at his very core. He is a lower, bleaker character than we’ve ever seen him, but Gervais doesn’t sacrifice the giggles — as scattered and more inconsistent as they are in this newest effort.
Much like last year’s “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” Brent’s songs — including “Lady Gypsy,” “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled,” “Native American” and “Equality Street,” which Gervais made and premiered a few years prior during a charity event — are knowingly terrible (at least, for Gervais), yet weirdly catchy and sometimes surprising telling, without feeling forced or overly obvious. As a former musician himself, Gervais gives these singles special care and noted attention, while never forgetting the character at the center. They’re irreverent, yet they nicely encapsulate Brent’s good intentions, which are usually lost in cloudy judgment. Much like “Free Love Highway” back in the day, these songs make you laugh first-and-foremost, but don’t be surprised if they also find you humming along later in the day. They’re a rich delight.
The extended running time, at least compared to half-hour weekly installments, makes Brent’s intolerable discomfort a larger cross to bear. By the hour mark, one can’t help but feel glum laughing at this man’s continued misfortunes, no matter how funny they can be. It doesn’t necessarily make the film more mean-spirited than the show, though it wasn’t like the original “The Office” wasn’t already kinda cruel to begin with, but it makes it harder to swallow at times. Brent’s not necessarily a difficult character to love as much as he’s frustrating to endure. Pity isn’t necessarily the intention here, but there’s only so much schadenfreude you can experience before questioning your well-being.
While David Brent remains clueless in the large run, Gervais is never less than self-aware. He knows his delusional character cannot live in endless distress if he wants to earn cheeky laughs, and that last-minute sweetness that was richly sprung from “The Office Christmas Special” does, indeed, find itself in this newest (potential) conclusion for the copiously falling lead man. The ending is, perhaps, a little too clean for its own good, but after endless failing from Brent, it’s good for a somewhat-bittersweet and ultimately satisfying conclusion to come to him in due fashion, whether he ultimately deserves it or not.
It’d be easy for “David Brent: Life on the Road” to be a shallow, deeply unnecessary return, yet Gervais is smart enough to not make this character revival as poorly-realized as Brent’s musical mission. Both Brent and Gervais give this “one last push” all the love, commitment, determination and fool-hearted dedication they can muster, and it’s good that at least one can come out on top even while the other clings to the bottom. Brent’s true place remains in “The Office,” yet the road proves ample ground for his miserable fumblings. It treads familiar territory, but ‘Life On The Road’ is a trip worth taking. [B]