Perhaps David Brent: Life on the Road represents the edge case for the current wave of nineties nostalgia.
The Office premiered in July 2001. It was the first year of the twenty-first century, but spiritually near the end of what might be termed “the long nineties.” The mockumentary sit-com was something of a novelty at the time, building upon the rich history and legacy of British comedy personalities like Alan Partridge, with Ricky Gervais introducing the character of David Brent. Gervais did not invent cringe-comedy, but he certainly pushed it forward. Gervais’ work in The Office and Extras would inspire a whole generation of awkward social comedy.
David Brent is an interesting beast. On the one hand, it seems like a nostalgic return to familiar ground for a comedian who has long evolved past this persona. Barring a brief reprisal of the role for Red Nose Day in March 2013, Gervais retired the role of David Brent more than a decade ago. In some respects, David Brent finds the comedian retreading old ground that had been ceded to a generation of imitators and innovators years earlier. Gervais slips effortless back into the role, but there is a sense that the world has changed around him.
Despite Gervais’ best efforts, there is an awkwardness to David Brent. It is hard to tell whether Gervais has soften in the intervening years or whether the world has gotten harder, but David Brent feels trapped between two extremes. The feature film adaptation feels at once too mean-spirited and too kind-hearted towards its protagonist, offering a version of the character who is as awkward and offensive as he has even been while constructing a film that coddles the obnoxious former manager. The result is a film that feels off-balance, an old standard played out of tune.
David Brent was generally the butt of the joke in The Office. He was perhaps the show’s most unsympathetic character, a manager with absolutely no people skills and a complete lack of a mental filter. In some ways, Brent’s position as manager allowed the television show to lay into him. No matter how embarrassing and offensive Brent might be, he was still the boss. That position of (admittedly minor) authority helped to insulate the show’s meaner tendencies, in some respects. After all, the sit-com boss has long been considered a legitimate comedic target.
As such, David Brent starts at something of a disadvantage. Following on from the end of The Office, Brent is no longer the boss. Brent is just a lowly salesman selling hygiene products. He works in a cubicle farm. He is surrounded by work mates that are his equal, but who react to him with the same horror and awkwardness that one might expect. He is bullied by a fellow staff member, and pitied by his boss. He goes massively into debt in order to fund a rock tour that has no chance of succeeding.
These situational factors serve to make the comedy of David Brent a lot meaner than it needs to be. Laughing at Brent felt almost justified when he was a nitwit who has succeeded far beyond his actual talent, an exaggeration of every already exaggerated embarrassing “horrible boss” story ever traded over pints. However, when Brent is a broken shell of a man who is bullied and humiliated, laughing at Brent seems rather mean-spirited. It is not that Brent is any less offensive or outrageous, but that the comedy around him feels less sporting.
To be fair, Gervais’ comedy has always had an innate meanness to it. However, the comedian’s best work has walked a fine line between sadness and comedy. David Brent is himself an embodiment of that ideal. Slipping back into the role like a pair of old sandals, Gervais perfectly captures the mannerisms and tics that made Brent such a powerful and fully-formed creation. There is clownishness there, but there is also a deep sadness. All of that is conveyed through the way Brent laughs; a combination of a sigh and chuckle that sounds almost like dreams being deflated.
However, David Brent never quite gets that balance between empathy and hatred. Instead, the movie vacillates between the two extremes. Brent is as shallow and offensive as ever, as stupid and sexist and racist. The film does not temper the character in that regard, refusing to water him down. However, the movie also insists on making excuses for him. “I don’t think there’s anything behind it,” reflects one character of Brent’s insensitivity on matters of race. Another character observes that watch Brent talk to women is like watching a wall of Jenga collapse.
There is a sense that this interpretation of Brent is too affectionate and too forgiving, allowing the character effectively off the hook with a smile and a chuckle. Like a lot of sit-com characters, there is a tragedy in Brent’s stubborn refusal to actually learn from his mistakes or his disasters. However, David Brent over-compensates for this by at once writing off his mistakes and distorting its fictional universe to offer the character a happy ending that never feels properly earned.
This conclusion is clumsily choreographed during the movie’s first act, staring the audience so boldly in the fact that there may as well be a banner held by (at least two) characters screaming “happy ending!” At the same time, it feels like the rest of the cast are unnaturally forgiving of Brent. A lot of the comedy in The Office and David Brent hinges on how utterly unlikeable the lead character is, and the bulk of the film’s runtime commits to this. However, as the final act arrives, the other characters seem to have uncharacteristic changes of heart, coming out of nowhere.
The result is that David Brent feels like a comedy trying to have its cake and eat it. It wallows in the cringe-comedy of David Brent’s desperation and dysfunction, but realises that this might be mean-spirited. So the film over-compensates by insisting that Brent is really a decent chap deep down and that the world is not so cruel that it will laugh mercilessly at the cavalcade of humiliation that he must endure. The tone varies wildly from scene to scene, as if trying to have the best of both worlds; a film that laughs at him, but does not seem cruel.
It is hard to tell whether Ricky Gervais has gotten softer or whether the world around him has gotten meaner. In some respects, David Brent feels like a reflection on the reality television boom. There is a recurring suggestion that Brent is as much a victim of the documentary team as of his own lack of insight. “It’s not good for him,” one character candidly confesses. “He plays up for the camera.” The ethics of reality television seem to sneak in at the edge of the frame. One character even consciously laments how she will inevitably be treated in the edit.
This measure of sympathy and compassion is an interesting idea, particularly in a world that has grown increasingly sceptical of the “reality” of reality television. People are a lot more conscious about the media they consume these days, and there is something clever about the idea that Brent might have in some way been the victim of a cynical television production company looking to drive ratings. One of the film’s best gags underscores the way that the media picks on people like Brent, as he guests on a local radio show.
(Indeed, this theme even plays out in the relationships that exist between Brent and the other characters. Repeatedly over the course of the film, it seems like people latch on to Brent because they see him as a naive idiot who can be exploited. In most cases, this means taking Brent’s money while refusing to treat him as a human being. In other cases, Brent’s music dreams are reduced to a cruel joke by mean students. There is a sense that Brent is being manipulated, as the movie implies that he has been by the documentary crew.)
The problem is that the film refuses to commit to this idea. David Brent wants both to wallow in the humiliation of its title character and find a way to offer him a happy ending. The result feels just as disingenuous as it implies the documentary crew to be.