Ricky Gervais may have captured the zeitgeist with The Office, but it’s a high-watermark he hasn’t come close to in the subsequent 13 years. This movie spin-off shows he can still play those toe-curling greatest hits, even if it isn’t exactly brimming with new ideas.
Now pushing 50, David Brent cuts an utterly absurd figure, still believing he might sign a record deal, still unable to imagine a life beyond Reading and Slough. Now a tampon salesman (a little too on the nose in the faux-macho humiliation stakes), he cashes in his pension to fund a “comeback” tour for his band Foregone Conclusion, consisting of a handful of gigs within spitting distance of his house. What follows, of course, is a series of public humiliations, with Brent falling gloriously short of even the palest imitation of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
And while the character is the same as ever, the world in which he lives is a meaner, lonelier place. There was always a tragic element to David Brent, but here it’s double underlined in red marker-pen, and partly fleshed out by the mention of his history of depression.
That’s not to say there aren’t hilarious scenes to cut through the gloom: the rendition of his song Equality Street, played in a duet with his mixed-race band-mate, is snort-out-loud, watch-through-your-fingers stuff.
It’s not without its problems, however. As in the original series (and Extras and Derek and pretty much everything else Gervais has made) he continues to squeeze mileage out of being uncomfortable around disabled people, which feels more tired now than ever. Gervais’s jokes are funniest when they point inward: his perfectly-timed verbal ticks, those indrawn laughs that can’t possibly fill the silence following an off-colour joke. At his best, Brent is the physical embodiment of that feeling you get the morning after the work Christmas party.
There’s a tendency with spin-offs of beloved sitcoms to pander to the fans, giving the character too much of what they want, letting them walk triumphantly into the sunset. But this was never going to be the fate of David Brent; the closest he gets is a brief moment of catharsis, a genuine tear-jerking scene that shows Gervais’ writing at its most human.
Life on the Road exists not because Gervais had one last David Brent story he desperately needed to get off his chest, but because somebody figured there was enough left in the nostalgia bank after the Alan Partridge and Ab Fab updates. But Brent still represents Ricky Gervais at his excruciating best: it’s the rousing final farewell nobody asked for.
First published in City A.M.