REVIEW: David Brent: Life on the Road
(MA15+) Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Tom Bennett
The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is stuffed with clear-cut warnings against being a foolish person. You might steadily remember some of those warnings, as you watch the movie comeback of a legendary fool from the small screen. David Brent: Life on the Road is the return of offensive, obnoxious boss David Brent, created and performed by funny bloke Ricky Gervais in the British original version of The Office sitcom. While this likely seems good news to fans of that phenomenal TV series, David Brent’s return mainly is an awkward and brutal exercise in destroying someone before our eyes. Yes, Gervais has finally pushed Brent’s antics too far beyond uncomfortable laughs and into a bizarre example of mercilessly mocking a fool.
Just as Brent was when we last saw him in The Office‘s Christmas specials in 2003, he is a walking, talking advertisement for “a fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.” (Proverbs 18:7) Thirteen years might have passed but Brent has barely evolved, even though he’s gone through some significant emotional and mental trials. Still a slimy salesman with ludicrous self-confidence and a profound ability to repel most people, motor-mouth Brent continues also to dream of being a rock-star. So much so that he ploughs most of his savings into a tiny tour of dodgy venues — and the results are inevitably embarrassing. Gervais continues to inhabit Brent with breathtaking ease and his verbal diarrhoea will make you laugh — even when you know you shouldn’t. That said, those who despise swearing, crude or offensive language will still want nothing to do with envelope-pushing Gervais.
Most jokes or shocks have surfaced in past Brent episodes, just as Life on the Road boasts a disappointingly similar plotline to those Christmas specials in 2003. The key difference is the tone and approach here, which boils down to actor-writer-director Gervais serving up Brent as a pathetic pinata for the pummeling. The original Office TV series often did that same thing but it managed to stop short of feeling like merely a televised humiliation. Side characters in the TV series were able to pinpoint some redeeming features in Brent, as well as offset his extremes with tact, amazement or pity. But Life on the Road has the majority of Brent’s offsiders telling us with venom or disdain what we already know: Brent is an ignorant, insulting and deluded loser.
At the same time as these characters talk directly to the camera and bluntly state the obvious about Brent, there also are more attempts made on-screen than during The Office TV series, to cut through the delusions of this wannabe celebrity. Brent’s reactions only tend to prove Proverb 23:9 to be true: “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.” The effect of all this is Life on the Road plays out like an attack against Brent, with just the odd flicker of compassion or sympathy. But when those do come, or Brent finally realises what his core issue is, it’s hard to feel anything but manipulated by such unconvincing inclusions which lack support or build-up.
Life on the Road seems to want to leave us with something about being yourself and not trying too hard to be something you’re not. That message might be more easily swallowed if the movie projecting it hadn’t been so dedicated to enjoying Brent’s disastrous attempts at finding himself. Although so much of unnecessary update Life on the Road is like a celebration of Proverbs’ warnings against foolishness, that book’s key teaching is nowhere to be seen. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
Trying to imagine a universe where David Brent heeds wisdom and instruction, and develops a healthy respect for God’s ways and guidance, is tough to do. Especially when Life on the Road offers no such future possibility to him; only the prospect of a fool heading for more ruin and soul destruction.
Ben McEachen is co-host of The Big Picture