David Brent: Life On The Road Review: More “Free As A Bird” Than “Blackbird”

I can’t claim to have any kind of insight in to the working relationship between long-time collaborators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but I always felt like as a pair brought the best out in one another.

It reminds me of McCartney and Lennon. McCartney was the melody guy, the one who could take something and make it a bonafide hit. He understood what made music work. Lennon was the creative, innovative one. The one pushing the boundaries. Together, they created innovative yet radio friendly hits that have indisputably stood the test of time.

But alone? They had their high points, absolutely. McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed is up there amongst of my favourite songs, and Band on the Run is one of the greatest albums of all time. The same can be said for Lennon’s Double Fantasy, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine.

But they weren’t the same. McCartney became too clichéd and pop-y, Lennon too weird. McCartney made Silly Love Songs, Lennon Revolution 9. They were good alone, but together they were Lennon and motherf*cking McCartney.

I see Merchant and Gervais like this.

Merchant to me has always seemed to be the one who understands storytelling, format and pacing. He’s the one who gets the theory of it all, but lacks the pizzazz to really reach another level. On his own, he comes up with Hello Ladies. Decent, competent, but not thrilling.

Gervais, on the other hand, never struck me as someone who understood why things worked, but he brought the personality and character. Together, they had the story and balance of Merchant and the Brent character and wackiness of Gervais. They are equally responsible for creating one of the greatest programmes of all time in The Office.

But Gervais on his own? Well, he makes David Brent: Life On The Road. And this is 100% a Ricky Gervais film.

One side of it being a Ricky Gervais film is it is funny. Laugh out loud funny at times. Some of the comedic timing is excellent, and the odd line here and there had me in stitches.

The other side is that it is immensely flawed on a basic and fundamental level.

The most obvious thing that is missing is an apparent understanding of how to craft a story. Basic set-up and pay-off. Character arcs. Consistent behaviour. Clear motivations. The film had none of these.

I won’t give anything away in terms of what happens, beyond saying (so, potential minor spoiler, I guess?) that nothing feels earned in any way. Things just happen, and yet we have no idea a) why they are happening, or b) why we should care.

The worst offender is Brent himself. In The Office he was a part of an ensemble cast, but here it’s all on him. He’s been dialled up to eleven, no longer a slightly awkward man showing off to the camera but a total idiot detached from the real world. He’s as annoying as f*ck.

There’s a whole side-story of the bullying culture at work towards him, but I didn’t see the “bullies” as being unreasonable. Brent is such an loathsome d*ckhead in this film I don’t blame anyone for telling him to shut the f*ck up and stop making bad jokes and loud noises. He’s all of Ricky Gervais’ worst traits rolled in to one, which is as thoroughly unpleasant as it sounds.

It left the whole film feeling like a bit of a mess. Characters flip-flop opinions on a whim simply because the story needed them to. Characters were introduced (such as those played by the excellent Diane Morgan and Nina Sosanya) who feature in one scene and are completely forgotten about thereafter. The entire film couldn’t decide whether it was a documentary or not.

Good God, the documentary format. The film begins by saying it’s a documentary, and it retains the talking heads from the series, but it’s just so inconsistent. It’ll go from the shaky handheld camera format of the original to a slick, well-produced mainstream-looking “movie”.

In one particular scene towards the end Brent is sat in a hotel restaurant with a coffee. It is shot with a close-up, wide-shot, shot/reverse shot, left, right, behind, with a camera in the corridor waiting for the dramatic exit… it’s unbelievably distracting. I stopped listening to the dialogue and tried to work out, if this was a real documentary, how many cameramen they would need to get these shots. I counted eight. EIGHT cameramen in one small room in a hotel near Reading for a documentary on someone who was on reality TV fifteen years ago playing music to empty pubs.

But this isn’t a problem with one scene. The whole film is littered with examples of where it wanted to look like a slick Hollywood film and a rough-and-ready documentary. There were aerial shots tracking the tour-bus. Cameras in rooms waiting for people to walk in to. It sounds pedantic, but it’s such a basic mistake so make. And one that I can’t help but feel like Merchant wouldn’t have made.

And then we get to the music. The album, when taken on its own terms, is actually pretty funny and irritatingly catchy. I don’t want to spend my day walking around singing about how Slough is “equidistant between London and Reading”, but here I am. As a standalone Ricky Gervais comedy album it’s surprisingly good.

But as songs the character David Brent would think are his path to stardom? It makes no sense. His music in The Office worked not because the song themselves were “funny”, but because the person singing them was a middle-aged office manager from Slough who didn’t know how stupid he looked. He wasn’t singing about Native American people or “the Disableds”.

It meant the humour felt off. Not bad as such, but misplaced. It didn’t fit with the picture already built up of what “The Office” and “David Brent” are. It became silly and slapstick – someone gets shot with a T-Shirt cannon at one point, and he gets a comedy tattoo for f*ck’s sake – like a bad Inbetweeners joke or something. It rubbed me the wrong way. Again, nothing wrong with that type of comedy itself if that’s what you want, but not in The Office, ya know?

That’s the problem here. I can’t help but feel like Gervais wanted to make a film about what fame means in 2016 and shoehorned Brent in to help get it made. He clearly feels passionately about the topic and, broad as it could be at times, some of that humour would work in the right circumstances. In fact, I think there was a fairly decent low-brow comedy-drama film in there somewhere, where funny songs and women being knocked unconscious with a T-Shirt cannon would fit with the tone. But here it felt like something was missing.

It reminded me, funnily enough, of another Beatles comparison.

In 1995 the three remaining Beatles (or Threetles, if you will) got together to record a couple tracks John Lennon had been putting together before he died. The result was Free As A Bird and Real Love, the latter of which you may know for the Tom Odell cover in the John Lewis penguin advert a couple of years ago.

Both songs have some merit, but if you were to try and get a non-fan in to The Beatles you wouldn’t put those songs in the top fifty they should check out. They’re an epilogue, a barely-related reminder that The Beatles exist and are capable of doing something interesting, but without the spark and the magic of the Fab Four in their pomp in the Sixties. It’s not The Beatles, it’s three guys who happened to be in the band before doing The Beatles.

That’s David Brent: Life On The Road. There’s some good things in there, and I did get a few good laughs, but it falls kind of flat. That spark that made the original so magical isn’t there anymore. Now I’ve seen it once I probably won’t ever watch it again, and may not even think about it again after this review is posted. Given that I have an immensely strong emotional bond with The Office, that’s kind of sad.

Let me put it another way. It’s kind of like wanting to listen to Blackbird in 1968 and getting Free As A Bird in 1995. It’s just not the same.

David Brent Life On The Road Rating: Six women being hit with a T-Shirt cannon out of ten.

You can read our preview of the film here, and you can follow me on Twitter… here. It’s the best place to find out when a new review is online, but to be safe check in every Monday when the latest reviews are posted each week.

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