It’s telling to compare the hullabaloo surrounding Netflix’s Arrested Development and Gilmore Girls revivals with the collective shrug greeting the return of David Brent, the character at the center of the original British version of The Office, co-created and portrayed by Ricky Gervais. Maybe it’s the way that series was supplanted, in the popular imagination, by its many foreign translations; maybe it’s just that most of us are more than a little tired of Ricky Gervais. But it’s not hard to understand why he returned to his breakthrough character – after all, his past couple of projects, the forgettable Netflix series Derek and the tepid Netflix movie Special Correspondents, didn’t exactly set the world on fire. David Brent: Life on the Road feels like the result of a nervous call from the streaming service’s execs – “Hey, Ricky, maybe we give the people want they want?” – or, perhaps, that same thought originating inside Gervais’s head. But it’s an ill-conceived project all around, and little I say can summarize it more succinctly than one of Gervais’s own characters: “I think he’s only doing it because he thought it would be better than the first time. But it’s not better, it’s worse.”
The premise is unsurprisingly simple: the BBC documentary crew responsible for the original series has decided to check in with David Brent, and see what he’s up to these days. (That framework, however, is consistently undercut by the almost total absence of handheld photography, presumably to enable director Gervais’s preferred, faster multi-locked-camera shooting style.) “That was then, this is now,” he tells them. “I’m a singer/songwriter.” He and his current band, Foregone Conclusion, are going on tour, the result of Brent cashing in his pension funds, a one-last-shot-at-fame sort of thing. The crew tags along, and captures the implosion.
First, however, there is some time spent at his current office, where he is but a lowly sales rep; early scenes show Brent annoying his co-workers with his endless goofing-off and taking meetings with HR about the “harmless fun” of his sexist and ethnic jokes. So, yeah, there’s a slight sense of retreading happening here. The scenery at least changes once Brent and his band of musicians-for-hire hit the road – the stage patter is painful (“As of now, this dude has not raped anyone”), his movements are clumsy (“I fell over, d’you think they noticed?”), and the songs are terrible (and, unfortunately for the movie, terribly unfunny). What’s worse, his band absolutely hates him; they “insisted I have my own dressing room,” he assures us, and also think it’d be better if he followed the tricked-out tour bus in his own car.
So most of David Brent: Life on the Road amounts to a parade of humiliations and faux pas, punctuated by the eye-rolling of the thin supporting characters. But it’s missing, entirely, the humanizing elements of the Office series – presumably because Gervias, the sole writer/director/star (and sole performer to cross over from that series) has vastly overestimated the character’s appeal. The Office was never just about Gervais (as seen by the success of its multiple adaptations), or about the Brent character (as evidenced by the American version’s continuation without its version of him). But that’s all Life on the Road is — for 96 long minutes (at some point in its conception, it was worth considering the maximum amount of time we can spend with a character this excruciating).
By the end, of course, Gervais can’t resist going soft on his creation; a horrid scene in which he insists on calling his band’s rapper “my nigga” and being called the same is followed by another band member assuring us, “I don’t think he’s racist, he just doesn’t get it, does he?” And on the way to the woefully predictable resolution, Gervais gets out-of-nowhere sentimental, with sudden kindness from the tour mates who’ve spent the past hour-plus loathing him, comeuppance for the bully at work, a choked-up-with-emotion final interview (utterly unearned), and, swear to God, a Christmas song.
Surveying the wreckage of Life on the Road and Gervais’s other recent efforts, it’s worth wondering what exactly went wrong here – how the quality of his series and films has taken such a steep drop. His collaborator credits provide a clue. His best projects (The Office, Extras, The Ricky Gervais Show, An Idiot Abroad, Life’s Too Short, the underseen and underrated 2010 film Cemetery Junction) were written with Stephen Merchant, the wiry stand-up, actor, and writer with whom Gervais ceased working (perhaps acrimoniously) a few years back. Derek, Special Correspondents, and Life on the Road were all written and directed solely by Gervais, suggesting that either he needs someone on-hand to veto his lesser ideas, or that Merchant (whose post-Gervais series Hello Ladies was actually pretty funny) was the real juice in the collaboration. Either way, next time Gervais wants to recapture his former successes, he’d be wise to reconnect with the man partially responsible for it. Until then, the rest of us should steer clear.
David Brent: Life on the Road is now streaming on Netflix.