This review may or may not contain minor spoilers. It may or may not do. So don’t…
When we left Sir David of Brent almost fifteen years ago, he wanted to be remembered as one who put a smile on the face of all who he met. While he did not exactly achieve this as Regional Manager of Wernham Hogg, he did get the odd smirk here and there, as Gareth, Dawn, Tim et al almost warmed to their pathetic boss. Yet, in the brilliant Christmas Specials, there was an indication that the future for Brent was more sinister; he encountered a workplace that was increasingly intolerant of his delusions and childishness, often being berated by the pretty trim Neil Godwin. Oddly, it is this bullying of Brent, both in and out of the office, that ‘Life on the Road’ focuses on, leaving a tone as bitter as a pint of Courage.
This is not to say that there are not glimmers of the old Brent, and the film is by no means a Parisian car-crash, but it is poorly directed by Gervais, who would have been better off using the restraining qualities of that goggle-eyed freak, Stephen Merchant. It all starts well enough, with the familiar mockumentary style and a snippet of the title song, which highlights Brent’s penchant for bombing it down the motorway at 70mph tops. From here we see that the Brentmeister General is pretty much where we left him, selling brushes, tampons and urinal cakes (although, Brent prefers a urinal flan) as a rep for Lavichem. However, the set-up of this new office is the first of many sour missteps in the film: the receptionist ignores him; the senior sales clerks are aggressive bullies; HR berate him for racism; the boss shuts his door whenever Brent approaches. There is an attempt to show that not everyone hates David, most obviously through fellow joker Nigel, this film’s Gareth, and more subtly through Pauline, a sympathetic wallflower. Pauline could have been the secret weapon here, as she possesses the forlorn looks and downbeat sighs of Lucy Davis, but it is not initially clear whether she actually likes David or merely tries to make him feel better. There are some clumsily included actions of goodwill (she once gave him a lift home; she buys him a card) but we don’t spend enough time with her or any of the Lavichem staff for them to be anything more than little slugs with no personality.
This hostile environment makes a point about the dog-eat-dog nature of modern employment, but it simply is not pleasant or interesting to watch. Sure, Wernham Hogg had elements of the playground in its pranks and innuendo, but the Lavichem playground is nasty and intolerant. Crucially, while the original series was about the tragedy of boredom, the oafish employees here seem to genuinely believe that answering phones all day makes them the next Apprentice, which further removes the office from reality. More criminally, we are only granted one exhausted shot of a photocopier in motion.
Rightly fed-up of repping, Brent decides to give his music career another go, aided once again by the rapping of Dom Johnson (Doc Brown), and a newly lined-up Foregone Conclusion, a session band led by Andy Burrows off of Razorlight. Comedically, the songs are one of the strong points of ‘Life of the Road’, from the aforementioned cautious titular track to old favourites like ‘Equality Street’ (racial, so…). In the stand-out song, Brent absolves himself from his jokes about Eric Hitchmough’s withered hand/the wanking claw at the Coventry conference: ‘Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled’ is every bit as excruciating as you can imagine, perhaps made worse by the fact that Burrows’ arrangements have sort of fused U2 with some catchy dad-rock shit.
While the band on-stage are funny, off-stage they are every bit as vile as the Lavichem staff, once again making for an uncomfortable watch. They fall silent when Brent enters a room and openly complain that the tour is embarrassing. It is, but ultimately they are session musicians chasing the Yankee dollar, and it is highly unbelievable that they would be such bitches. Elsewhere, the non-acting background of the band becomes evident in the documentary-style interviews with them, which are clearly improvised and therefore the band monotonously say exactly what they are thinking all the time. It’s a shame, because this trope in the original series added depth and subtlety: Dawn and Tim complained about their own lack of career progression, but they would rarely (if ever) be critical of David or any of their colleagues, thus maintaining the hopeless warmth of proceedings. Instead, scenes in this film often resemble the Big Brother Diary Room, with everyone taking a pop at the pug-nosed gimp whenever they get the chance.
It probably does not help that Gervais has lost some of the light and shade that made Brent so fantastic in the first place. Sure, there are still titters to be had at his awkwardness with women or his inept discussion of race, but he seems to have forgotten that Brent did not always go straight into being uncomfortable – there was often a build-up of intricate writing which lulled the audience into his silliness before flooring us with embarrassment. With the aid of Merchant, Brent’s longer speeches would begin with silly management speak, continue with workplace bullshit and often end with a slap of ineptitude. Here, the intricacy of writing is almost non-existent, with repeated jokes about being mixed race or fat (many of which will delight hardcore fans) and Gervais often losing his grip on his greatest creation. It’s almost as if, rather arrogantly, Gervais thinks that he can simply ‘be Brent’ without thinking about the delicate construction of jokes, instead relying on a horribly affected wheezy laugh that becomes GBH of the ears after the first five minutes. Really, Gervais seems to treat the film like a sleazy club PA, where all he has to do is come out and wave to entertain the masses.
That said, there is certainly fun to be had here, particularly in the opening third and the odd set-piece. If you’re looking at the whole pie of jokes, the biggest slice possibly comes from David’s relationship with Dom, which largely rests on Brent’s delight that he has a mixed-race friend (‘That is my favourite’). Their bond culminates in a drunken expression of love, with Brent’s desire to be down with the Dr Dres and Ice Ts of the modern world materialising in the most flagrantly comic use of the N-word since ‘The Dam Busters’. Aside from this, there are flashes of the Brent of old, particularly in a scene where he decides to get a tattoo. You’ll see the punchline coming like Keith down a corridor, but ‘The Office’ hardly shied away from cheap laughs, as the actress said to the bishop.
Still, nothing can save the film from an atrocious final act, which moves away from the grim reality of ‘The Office’ and towards the horribly uplifting, sentimental shite of ‘Derek’. Without giving away too much, many of the characters (both band-mates and Lavichem staff) seem to have a consciousness transplant where they suddenly decide that, despite bitching about him for most of the runtime, they actually really like David and want him to be happy. There are clunky grand shows of affection, there are tears, there are shared pints, and there are memories of ‘The Office’ that lie tattered on the floor. In this patronising, lazy, Costa-endorsing finale, Gervais freezes our fondness and makes a dagger, stabbing it in our hearts forever, confirming ‘Life on the Road’ as more of a dead-end than a free love freeway.