The American humorist Erma Bombeck famously wrote ‘there is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.’ Ricky Gervais attempts to follow this quote when returning to his David Brent character in his big screen outing.
After the events of The Office David Brent has lost his job at Wernham Hogg, has had a nervous breakdown and now works as a traveling sales rep for a company making cleaning products and female personal health items. Despite this, Brent still harbors dreams of being a rock star and tries to achieve this by taking unpaid leave and uses his savings to pay for a glamorous tour of Berkshire.
The British version of The Office was a big hit when it was first broadcast and helped to make Gervais, Martin Freeman, and Mackenzie Crook into stars, making Gervais into a comedic force. However Gervais is a divisive comedian, he has made a career on cringe humor and telling politically incorrect jokes, having a viewpoint that is based it being okay to make these jokes if you don’t really mean it.
Gervais is trying to play it both ways with the film spin-off: he wants us to laugh at Brent’s failures while also feeling sorry for him. It is a tough balance for any movie or TV show to achieve and David Brent: Life on the Road leans too much on the tragedy of Brent instead of being funny. Gervais was clearly going for a This is Spinal Tap/Ed Wood vibe about it – telling the story about someone who has a passion but not the talent to back him up. Those two movies were genuinely funny, and they were upbeat moments to mitigate the setback. David Brent: Life on the Road is much more mean-spirited because of Brent’s isolation and everyone using him as an ATM and ridiculing Brent behind his back.
During one of the interviews with Brent’s bandmates they say they don’t know whether to laugh or cry at his antics – that is a great description of the movie as a whole as we see Brent trying to live the rock star lifestyle and failing miserably. The songs are cringeworthy as well as his jokes based on race, gender and sexuality as were his attempts to be politically correct. This is expected because this is the type of comedy portrayed in The Office and is Ricky Gervais’ shtick – it is harder to find scenes where Brent is kicked off his own tour bus and gets rejected by the band at every opportunity. It’s not funny like Gervais thinks it is.
The comedy is sparse throughout the movie. It starts with a promise by playing a terrible song with a literal music video, and there were some funny lines occasionally making their way through. Rapper Doc Brown as Dom Johnson gets a laugh and he acts as the closest thing to a friend Brent has – someone who Gervais can bounce off from. Other jokes are funny but only really work for a British audience like Brent’s tattoo mishap and the pop culture references during an interview.
The other avenue of comedy is Brent terrible songs like the ones in This is Spinal Tap. The band is forced to play a variety of styles and made sing on the nose lyrics. One of the big numbers is ‘Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled’ which was brilliantly awkward – but there is only so many times the movie can flick back and forth to the audience’s baffled reactions.
One of the big features of The Office was it mockumentary style that was so authentic that some people who watched it initially thought it was a real reality show. David Brent: Life on the Road continues in that style with crisper camera work because better quality cameras are available for these types of production. However at times the movie breaks its own rules by trying to be like a documentary – there are times where Gervais cuts between two people – showing a therapy session and showing Brent barge into a room for a cruel punch line.
Most comedies aim to make their audiences laugh and feel good after seeing them – David Brent: Life on the Road will end up leaving viewers with a feeling of despair.