I don’t these days I’d describe myself as a big Ricky Gervais fan but I’ve been a huge one. I loved The Office when I first saw it and Extras has a special place in my heart (mostly for Patrick Stewart’s cameo but still. I kept with him through the dodgier moments of Derek and Life’s Too Short. I still listen to his podcasts and laugh until it hurts. Back in the day, his stand-up was both hilarious and cutting edge. I was there with everyone else in terms of worshipping everything the comic did. Then he went to Hollywood and I kind of lost faith with him. From the laughably bad Ghost Town, the dismal and cliched The Invention of Lying, and the embarrassing brief appearances in the Night at the Museum films, it wasn’t the Ricky Gervais I knew. Then the final series of Derek was a bit shit and Gervais just got more unreliable. Unreliable and more egotistical. In the run up to the release of Special Correspondent Ricky was often quoted talking about how fucking great he was. Which would have been fine if the film itself wasn’t so shit. So, when it was announced that David Brent, a character that means a lot to me and a great many people, would be coming back in a feature film, I couldn’t help but feel kind of apprehensive of his return to old material. Then my old work friend saw it and told me it was awful… and he didn’t hate Special Correspondents nearly as much as I did. So, I put off watching the film and went into it expecting to be cringing, crying, swearing revenge on Gervais, or all of the above.
Aside from a few special appearances and a series of YouTube videos that I couldn’t bear watching for more than a few seconds, Ricky Gervais hasn’t played David Brent since 2003. That’s a gap of 13 years between the final episode of the BBC2 series and the character’s move to the big screen. Gervais has been keen to point out that this isn’t an The Office film; probably because some of its stars have gone on to bigger and better things at this point. I mean Martin Freeman is a huge name these days, Lucy Davis is currently starring in Wonder Woman, and Mackenzie Crook has done some stuff since Pirate of the Caribbean… I haven’t seen it but he’s definitely done it.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter, right? After all, it was David Brent that was the driving force of the humour in the series so that’s all that matters. Well, kind of. Brent was the figure of fun within the series but you also had enough happening around him that he was always diluted and humanised. It’s Tim and Dawn that people loved and it was Gareth that was the lovable weirdo. Brent was always the pathetic try-hard that was sort of annoying. How well could a film hold up with just him at the helm?
Well it’s okay because Brent is not alone. The film reintroduces us to rapper Dom Johnson (Doc Brown) who we first met in a Comic Relief sketch in 2013. In that sketch Brent was attempting to make it as a Simon Cowell type by managing the up and coming Johnson. In Life on the Road, the larger than life ex-manager of a paper company is still harbouring his dream of becoming a rock star and is self-funding a short tour with his band Forgone Conclusion. Johnson is being taken along for the ride but finds that his talents are not being used as much as he’d like. Brent throws all of his money into organising a tour that only a handful of people turn up to. He is so driven by a desire for fame that he can’t see how damaging the whole thing is.
If I had to sum up Life on Tour it would be like those people on X Factor or something who think they have talent and then are humiliated by the show when it turns out they have zero singing ability. It takes the whole awkward cringe comedy to a level beyond anything we’ve seen on The Office. At least during the two series of the show Brent was an idiot but he was still a lovable one. There is little here beyond meanness. The comedy comes from his utter lack of self-awareness and his need to please people. The series ended with him finally growing some balls and telling Finchy to fuck off. In that moment there was hope for David Brent. That hope has all but disappeared here and Gervais is back to cheap laughs and trying to push people’s buttons.
If Life on the Road teaches us anything it’s that, without Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais has no ability to reign himself in. It’s exactly the same story that we’ve seen before but when he has this kind of freedom everything just gets out of control. There is nothing to bring the narrative together and the whole thing feels more like a sketch that has been elongated thanks to some averagely funny songs that go on way too long. You kind of get the impression that, like Brent, Gervais is using this film to act out any fantasies he may still have about being a rock star. There needed to be more structure and more discipline for this to ever work alongside the TV show that is so perfect and so loved.
Still, there are funny moments and there is always going to be some joy in watching Gervais play David Brent. I mean, by now, the character fits him better than a Sergio Georgini jacket and all of the familiar gurns and noises bring memories flooding back. The problem is that there was no need to bring David back. He had a perfect ending in 2003 and Gervais should have stuck to his guns and not brought him back. It feels like Gervais is trying to profit on the Alan Partridge vibe by constantly bringing back a much-loved character successfully time and time again. But David Brent has never been Alan Partridge and Ricky Gervais has never been Steve Coogan. There is a mean and desperate quality to Gervais’ writing for this character that just doesn’t work in this context. He tries so hard to shock and offend the “humourless PC brigade” but his comedy has ceased being edgy. Ricky Gervais is bringing this character back into a society that is no longer shocked by these things. It all just seems lame.
I didn’t hate Life on the Road as much as I expected but this shouldn’t be taken as any kind of positive. I expected to turn it off halfway through. I ended up managing to watch the entire thing without feeling too bad. Still, this is nowhere near the level of brilliance that we associate with the show that first gave us this character. Instead of reintroducing us to a great comic creation this film just reminds us what we’ve been missing. It’s beginning to look as though the shrewd comic force of the Gervais/Merchant partnership wasn’t the loud and outspoken Gervais after all.