David Brent: Life on the Road is perhaps the most appropriate film that could be made about the character. It is not the best. But it, in its own way, encapsulates all the messiness and contradictions of the character and his creator. It tries to champion the common people yet propagates some real harmful stereotypes while doing so. It holds the cynicism of Gervais’ early career and the schmaltz of his recent work side by side, neither feels natural. Even in the conclusion, which tries to celebrate his positive aspects, only finds a way to do so by attacking other’s negatives.
Let’s start with the key problem, the concept. A Brent film. Brent played a role in The Office, the character existed as an indictment of the power structures that exist within corporate culture. Outside of this structure, where the film spends most of its running time, the character feels purposeless. Observe a poorly conceived scene in which Brent throws increasingly racist and sexist abuse at a waitress. The scene doesn’t work because the characters don’t act recognisably, Brent doesn’t hold the power so shouldn’t have the licence to perform his shtick.
Therein lies the rub though. People want to see Brent be Brent, but Brent could be Brent in The Office because he was constantly held at arm’s length from the audience. You were encouraged to empathise with Tim and Dawn, Brent you watched, the very reason they’d clock the camera was because the camera inherently shared their point of view. Brent could be Brent because his excesses were implicitly judged. The plot of the film places Brent at the centre of a group of people unable or unwilling to condemn. Brent invites two overweight women to his hotel room, a volley of fat jokes fly, but there’s no inversion here, no scene where his bigotry is exposed we’re not laughing at Brent. Sure, he’s being shocking but the joke, at the end of the day, is on the women.
The rampant apologia runs thick through the film. Brent isn’t sexist we’re told, just awkward around women. But he is though. Brent isn’t racist, he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he is though. Brent is taking therapy to better understand himself, the concept is introduced to us with a joke at the expense of those who have a harder time concealing their illness. Understanding being strictly reserved for those who suffer invisibly. Even in the new office Brent isn’t allowed to be the villain. We have an uber-Brent, more clueless, more puerile, who Brent must shepherd from his worst impulses. We have the anti-Brent a dour, humourless, bullying stereotype. It is telling the only way to make the man a hero is to fill the frame with worse people. The women at his new workplace also largely seem to like him, none really take the time to explain why.
The plot as it goes, involves Brent (Gervais) and his band Forgone Conclusion, featured rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) plus a group of session musicians payed by the hour, as they embark on a three week (seven performance) tour of the Berkshire area. Also featured are the goings on in his new workplace, Lavichem, where he works. The plot finds very little reason for Brent to interact with either of these groups though. He leaves work for his tour having only given cursory introduction to his colleagues. And his band find him so repulsive that they kick him off the tour bus, assign him his own private dressing rooms, and wholly refuse to spend any time with him.
Hence we don’t really get to see Brent evolve in any way, either personally or in his relationships. He seemingly does but the vast majority of the time it is conveyed through the expositional talking heads that dominate far too much of the films runtime. In fact, one wonders why the film is presented as a documentary in the first place, it must, however the story feels so often feels like it strains at the chains of the conceit. Indeed, the scenes that step the closest to conventional narrative are often some of the best. And while Ben Bailey Smith and co-star Jo Hartley do admirable work in their roles they can’t overcome the fact that Gervais cannot write for characters who aren’t white men.
Early in the film, Brent takes out a picture of the original Foregone Conclusion. His first success. All had moved on, or were busy, or dead. Brent is alone is carrying on a dream that all others involved had left behind. It is hard not to read into this. The dream is dead though, maybe it’s time to give this one up.
Follow your own advice Ricky. Focus on your music, it’s clearly where your heart is at the moment.