Full disclosure from the start; I am a huge fan of The Office. It’s one of the first sitcoms I was ever geeky and passionate about. I rewatch the whole lot at least once a year. I’ve revised my entire opinion of people based on their innocently-held view that the US version was “actually just as good”.
All of this is my way of saying I was worried I’d be disappointed by David Brent: Life on the Road. I’ve always loved the fact that The Office was deliberately just two seasons and a special. The concept of bowing out before the quality starts deteriorating is proved sound every day if you stick The Simpsons on while you’re having your tea. Would 2016 Brent sully all that had gone before?
On balance, I can just about sleep easy. We find Brent inviting the documentary crew back into his life once more to follow him as he pursues his dreams of rock stardom with his band, Foregone Conclusion (Mark II). While doing a bit of sales repping on the side, of course.
All the old Brentisms are here, with enough awkward silences, ill-advised jokes and uncomfortable attempts at fitting in to keep hardcore fans satisfied. Some might see it as ‘more of the same’, but when it’s the reason you loved the character in the first place, it’s very welcome.
The problem is that while familiar character traits are one thing, this sameyness does creep into the set pieces. We’ve already seen Brent get told off by superiors for telling off-colour jokes and have a tense trip to the pub with his colleagues. Neither rehash of these scenarios hits the same heights as Wernham Hogg.
Ricky Gervais has been at pains to point out that Life on the Road “isn’t an Office movie”, and it’s certainly at its best when Brent breaks free from his new, less funny office and takes to the stage.
Ben Bailey Smith’s embarrassed bandmate Dom and and Tom Basden’s despairing road manager Dan provide the strongest foil for Brent’s shambolic, rambling frontman. Their horror at his onstage antics provides many of the laughs, while the songs are classically Brentish attempts to deal with complex issues such as love, disability and Native American history.
Office aficionados might be disappointed that old favourites such as Freelove Freeway and Spaceman fail to make an appearance, most likely to keep a distance between the film and the show. However, both are available on the official soundtrack, and as anyone who learned guitar with David Brent back in 2013 will know, plenty more funny tunes were written:
It always felt like Gervais and Stephen Merchant were keen for us to know that there was a human side to Brent; that he wasn’t bad, just misguided. This is a theme that Life on the Road tries to continue, but the pathos feels a little forced at times, particularly during a somewhat clunky final 15 minutes.
Revisiting a much-loved character from a classic sitcom is always going to be an uphill task. Life on the Road doesn’t really hold a candle to The Office, either in terms of comedy or storytelling, because how could it?
That said, much of what I loved about early noughties Brent is still here. His misplaced stabs at political correctness and doomed attempts to recover a compliment gone wrong are still funny. He just wants to be liked, and when all’s said and done, I think I can give him that.