Ricky Gervais is a transcendent figure who attracts love and ire in equal measure. Responsible for two of the greatest television sitcoms of all time, on a par with Larry David, Gervais has similarly struggled with the transition to the big screen. It would be easy to suggest that Gervais’s return to our cinemas in the guise of his most famous creation is a cynical attempt to resurrect his flailing career following a succession of underwhelming projects. This would be even more pointed because the ego of Brent (much like Andy Millman in Extras) craves positive reinforcement by both his audience and peers to such an extent that at times it becomes all-consuming. Ultimately, however, to equate Gervais with Brent, which is as easy as equating Woody Allen with his cinematic persona, is to absolutely misunderstand both Gervais’s intent and his (albeit flawed) genius.
The driving force of all of Gervais’s best work is an unapologetic sentimentality; whether it the Tim/Dawn romance in The Office or Andy’s epiphany about his treatment of Maggie in Extras. This is even more true for Derek and Cemetery Junction – a criminally underappreciated modern British classic – and is the reason why Life’s Too Short and Special Correspondents are fundamentally flawed. Poignancy might not be the raison d’être for Gervais’s most profound works, but it is definitely the raison d’aimer.
Life on the Road mercifully doesn’t try to recreate The Office, and it’s for the best: nobody wants to be confronted with the inevitable reality that Tim and Dawn’s honeymoon is over, that the fairytale ending isn’t real. The film catches up with David Brent in real-time, 15 years after the end of the BBC ‘docu-soap’ The Office. Brent now works for Lavichem, a cleaning products distributor based in Slough and is about to embark on a self-financed three-week tour around Berkshire with his band ‘Foregone Conclusion – Mark II’.
What works most are the moments when Brent is at his most vulnerable. The detailing of his struggles over the last fifteen years are very poignant, as are his futile attempts to be ‘one of the lads’. There’s just not enough of it. Life on the Roadis, perhaps inevitably, a disappointment. It shares its biggest flaw with Special Correspondents: a failure to adequately develop its supporting cast. This means that the character interactions with Brent, both positive and negative, fall flat.
Brent is frustrating because the audience really wants him to get to grips with his situation; to have another moment of epiphany akin to his confrontation with Finchy at the end of The Office. But Life on the Road is more subtle than that; the film is actually a little bit too grounded in reality. This also means that the piece isn’t even entirely cinematic – after all we are used to seeing Brent on a TV ‘docu-soap’ and in a series of YouTube videos. But perhaps that’s the point: Gervais’s pay-offs are rarely the stuff of Hollywood-endings.
All that being said, it is inescapable that the film has plenty of laughs. There are glimpses of Gervais’s best in the film, and you can’t help but love Brent’s continuing attempts to cultivate a very specific image of himself for the documentary crew.
Many Gervais fans will be familiar with Brent’s original songs which debuted on YouTube a number of years ago. These are one of the strongest points of the film. However, the dramatic irony at play during his performances doesn’t work: how can none of Brent’s audience within the film find his music or on-stage antics funny? The pervasive sense of embarrassment for Brent overrides this to a stifling degree. But the reason we love Brent is because he chases his dreams, although the dream is less about securing a record contract and more about forming a real connection with people. His modus operandi may be self-destructive, but he knows no better because he is all adrift and all alone in a very cruel world.
Life on the Roadis not going to convert any Gervais-sceptics, but it is superior to most comedies you’ll see in the cinema at the moment. We hold Gervais to a higher standard because we must: he is capable of so much better. However, with every subsequent disappointment, there is growing desire for Gervais to get his ‘diary back back in sync’ with Stephen Merchant.