UK Release Date: 19th August 2016
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Ricky Gervais
Writer: Ricky Gervais
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden, Andy Burrows, Jo Hartley, Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett
Synopsis: Brent, with his documentary crew back alongside him, cashes in his pension and leaves his office job to hire a band and head off on tour, pursuing his dream of becoming a musician.
The Office put Ricky Gervais on the map as a comedy performer. Thirteen years later, Gervais has returned to the role of David Brent for music mockumentary Life on the Road, which sees the character go on tour to pursue his musical dreams. Much of Gervais’ recent success has been as a controversial awards host, so for fans, it’s great to see him back in a role that fits him like a glove. For those like me, however, who are allergic to everything Gervais, the return of Brent is a tiresome and entirely unwelcome chore to sit through.
Brent (Gervais) is now working as a sales rep and regularly jokes around with equally inappropriate workmate Nigel (Tom Bennett). He brings his old documentary crew back to follow him around as he embarks on an ambitious and hugely expensive musical tour, which wipes out his pension fund. Brent is joined on tour by sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden), a group of apathetic session musicians and rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith). With cash running out fast and audiences thin on the ground, Brent is forced to confront the fact that musical stardom might not be in his immediate future.
As someone unmoved by the work of Ricky Gervais to date, it’s little surprise that I was equally unmoved and disappointed by a film in which he stars, writes and directs. Life on the Road is the Brent character turned all of the way up to 11, which is perhaps unsurprising given how much this film feels like a gleeful rip-off of This is Spinal Tap. There’s nothing new about the mockumentary format in 2016 and everything about Brent feels like a relic of the past. Films about repellent characters can work, but Life on the Road asks us to feel sympathy for Brent and that just isn’t possible.
Gervais is on autopilot here, sleepwalking his way through all of Brent’s usual tics, including his unspeakably irritating forced laugh. He is on far surer ground when the music starts and some of the songs are genuinely funny with some very clever lyrics. Special praise must go to Ben Bailey Smith, also known as comedy rapper Doc Brown, who brings his natural likeability and charisma to the role of Brent’s rapper friend. He gets many of the best lines in the script, which is otherwise a rather barren comedic wasteland that seems to think Gervais’ face is funny enough to forego joke writing entirely.
Aside from the songs, though, there’s very little to recommend Life on the Road, which limps from set piece to set piece without much in the way of narrative or comedy to connect the episodes. Good ideas, like the band being hired to play at an ironic student union “Shite Night” event, are glossed over in favour of yet another scene in which Brent puts his foot in it by making an insensitive comment about women, disabled people or people of colour. Like a troubling number of recent films, Life on the Road seems to be of the opinion that a middle-aged white man using the N-word is the funniest thing ever.
Life on the Road doesn’t seem able to relax for long enough to simply let its characters be funny. After an hour or more of aimless wandering, the film hurriedly packs in a few scenes of what is supposed to be emotional growth, but comes across as more of a desperate grab for audience sympathy. It’s a sad attempt at manipulation that doesn’t work and ensures that the film ends on a note of depressing tedium rather than the relatively fertile comic ground of the musical numbers.
Pop or Poop?
Some good supporting turns and a handful of amusing songs are not enough to save David Brent: Life on the Road from its horrible central character and uninventive script. Ricky Gervais can almost certainly do better than relying on his past glories and it’s clear that there wasn’t a good enough reason here to bring this character back from the dead.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.