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.