David Brent: Life on the Road review – “Still the king of cringe”

"Hello, Reading!" Ricky Gervais returns as his tragicomic alter ego, and this time he's giving up the office to fulfil his dreams of being a rock star. What could go wrong?

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★★★

Ricky Gervais often says that if you don’t know who the David Brent is in your office, it’s probably you.

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Actually, there may be a bit of Brent in all of us – that vulnerable person who’s eager to please and only wants to be popular – which may explain why the two series of The Office from the early noughties have become a landmark in British comedy. Thirteen years later, Gervais finally brings his creation to the big screen in Life on the Road and proves Brent still has plenty of mileage.

That’s not to say Gervais keeps this vehicle revved from start to end. In the title song, the wannabe rock star croons about putting his “foot down to the floor, 70 miles an hour – but no more”. Likewise, the laugh count is high but the film (which Gervais wrote and shoots in the same mockumentary style as his original sitcom) is definitely funnier earlier on when Brent is in his natural environment: the offices of Lavichem, flogging feminine hygiene products.

With his bad-taste jokes, nervy grin and the punctuating laugh that peters out into a sigh, Brent (or “the Brentmeister” as his equally infantile desk mate calls him) is still the king of cringe.

He’s no longer the boss, however, and without the minions paid to suffer his tomfoolery (he’s frequently told by a bullying colleague to put a sock in it), his thoughts turn to rock stardom. Cashing in all his pension investments, he takes two weeks leave and hires a tour bus to ferry him and his band Foregone Conclusion around the dive pubs of Reading. Being based in Slough, it doesn’t cost him much in petrol, just a helluva lot in expenses and, above all, dignity.

There isn’t a plot as such to what follows, with the action unfolding as a series of stage turns that are more toe-curling than toe-tapping, as the pressure builds backstage.

You may recall Brent’s rapper sidekick Dom Johnson (aka Doc Brown, aka Ben Bailey Smith) from their hilarious 2013 music video Equality Street, recorded for Comic Relief. That’s referenced again here after Dom reveals that Brent only offered to be his manager before taking over the show with ditties like Slough, Lady Gypsy and Native American (“soar like an eagle, sit like a pelican”).

Though Gervais has a half-decent voice and was big in the Philippines in the 1980s with his group Seona Dancing, his more obvious talent is spinning a tune into comedy gold where a catchy beat cleverly underscores the punchline.

Free from having to adhere to BBC TV guidelines, Gervais also cuts closer to the bone with Brent’s half-baked musings in relation to ethnic minorities and the gender divide. There are a couple of teeth-gritting moments where you’re not sure whether to chuckle or choke, but he usually causes offence while trying to dig himself out of a hole or when he tries to appear “chillaxed” regarding taboo subjects and around attractive women. Because he tries so hard, you can’t hate him for it. In fact, you feel for him, because – as Dom and roadie Tom Basden point out – he finds it impossible just to be himself. 

It’s a pity the old “Slough posse” (Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and even series co-writer Stephen Merchant) don’t figure in this spin-off – it would have been interesting to hear their take on their old boss in his new leather-jacketed guise. A different line-up of talking heads are much more brutally honest about Brent when his shortcomings don’t really need pointing out.

There’s no getting to know the band either (including drummer Andy Burrows of Razorlight, who co-produced the accompanying album), who only look blankly and shift their weight while Brent rambles away. 

What could have been “This Is Spinal Tap meets Alan Partridge” doesn’t quite catch fire and Gervais doesn’t fully exploit the big-screen canvas he’s been given. But, as a portrait of a tragicomic hero – snigger-inducing yet ultimately heart-warming – it’s an irresistible bit of chilled-out entertainment.

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David Brent: Life on the Road is in cinemas on Friday 19 August