Before the US workplace sitcom The Office, there was the UK series The Office, and before Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, there was Ricky Gervais’ David Brent. Brent is crueler than his American cousin, less self-aware, and just as awkward. He’s a boss-cum-entertainer whose dance moves, high-pitched laugh, and endlessly quotable lines helped define the direction of British comedy for the new millennium.
Writing, directing, and starring in The Office propelled Gervais on to bigger things, enabling the production of his show-biz satire Extras, his guest star spots on The Simpsons, his questionable Hollywood movies, his Netflix-only feature Special Correspondents, and a gig hosting the Oscars. But it’s evident from the British spinoff film David Brent: Life on the Road — premiering in America via Netflix after an international run in 2016 — that neither the character nor his creator have grown up in the 16 years since The Office arrived on British TV. Perhaps more worryingly, it shows that Gervais never really understood what made David Brent work in the first place. The 90-minute runtime torpedoes any sympathy for the character viewers may still hold after more than a decade away.
The movie uses the same vague documentary format employed in the original Office, with an unseen and unheard camera crew tracking David Brent down more than a decade after he was forced out of Slough-based paper company Wernham Hogg. He’s now working in sales, and he spends much of his time driving around southern England shilling feminine hygiene products to potential buyers, but he’s still convinced he’s on the cusp of rock stardom. That delusion convinces Brent to take an extended unpaid vacation from work to embark on a sorely limited tour with his band, Foregone Conclusion — made up of reluctant session musicians and genuinely talented rapper Dom (played by comedian and musician Doc Brown).
The younger and hipper group ostracize Brent from the get-go, forcing him to travel in his own car rather than the well-equipped tour bus he paid for, and dodging his multiple attempts to socialize. In other films, that would be a cause for sympathy, but in the 20 minutes it takes for Brent to actually get on the road, he presents himself as such an irritating, offensive character that his bandmates are entirely justified in ditching him at every opportunity.
Brent deploys cheap stereotypes with depressing regularity. He frequently demeans people for their weight, race, or disabilities. Brent is working on a comedy impression of a “Chinaman” character he calls “Ho Lee Fuck,” and a camp gay stereotype who repeats the phrase “chance would be a fine thing.” That’s in the first 10 minutes alone, and the relentless pace doesn’t let up. The movie includes a handful of Brent’s songs, one of which is titled “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled.” Brent himself violates that request, singing “you might have to feed the worst ones with a straw” as he points at an actual man in a wheelchair in the crowd.
It’s as if Gervais had a list of minorities and disenfranchised groups he had to systematically insult to get funding for the film. As an original Office viewer, I know his schtick well. Brent has been willfully offensive before. But at Wernham Hogg, he was an annoying but avoidable bit of terrain that the other characters could hike around. The Office kept a light touch with Brent, switching away to other plots when his professed ignorance got too cloying, or delivering comeuppance when he strayed too far.
Sadly, it seems that much of the steadying influence that made the character so enduring came from Office co-writer Stephen Merchant, as Life on the Road is far more in love with the concept of Brent than the BBC show ever was. Without Tim and Dawn’s suppressed romance, Gareth’s stupid-but-cute statements, or even Brent’s mild affection for his co-workers, there’s no heart to Life on the Road. Instead, it just feels cheap and nasty, a movie that’s endlessly punching down.
Gervais has argued that he’s laughing at racists, sexists, the homophobic, and the ableists, using his character as a straw man to spout their views before he’s burned to the ground. Brent is certainly hateful enough for an attempt at that argument, but Gervais is unwilling to actually put the torch to his creation. Shortly before Brent heads out on tour, he admits to the camera that he suffered a nervous breakdown in the years after his office experience, ballooning in size and shedding his confidence. That conjures up the first moment of genuine sympathy for the man, but the sympathy is undone 30 seconds later when another obviously troubled patient in his therapist’s office hands him a dead bee, prompting Brent to describe her as “proper mental.” Even in a down moment, he has to put himself above other people, undercutting any possible pathos.
And he repeats that process throughout the movie, with increasingly tone-deaf, pointlessly squirmy jokes. One particularly uncomfortable section has an apocalyptically drunk Brent calling Dom “my n------” and demanding Dom return the favor. (Dom buckles under the pressures of the cameras and society at large, quietly repeating the phrase, then slinking out of the shot.) Later, Brent dresses Dom up as a Native American, arguing that as a mixed-race man, he’s “the closest thing we’ve got.” Still later, Brent lures two women to his hotel room for sex, but they raid his minibar, borrow his bath, and sleep in his bed. The joke — Brent’s pathological inability to talk to the opposite sex — only comes after the women are denigrated for eating vast quantities of chocolate and for being overweight. And then there are the dismissive jokes about rape, and about how it’s funny when a woman gets pegged in the face by a T-shirt cannon, because she’s fat.
The moments where it seems like Brent is on a collision course with self-awareness do lend a few chuckles to the movie. Brent reminisces about seeing a previous bandmate in a car park, hand-in-hand with his wife, flanked by smiling children. It’s obviously an idyllic scene of family life, but Brent can only see the apparent sadness in his old friend’s eyes, a projected desire to be out touring local pubs and clubs in his mid-50s. But for every deft spot of character study, there’s another genuinely horrible, sour attempt at humor that would alienate any potential friends in a heartbeat.
And Gervais further undermines any claim at keen satire by having the rest of the cast validate and praise Brent’s exaggerated bigotry. His bandmates confess they find his excruciating behavior funny. Karen, the receptionist at his day job, says he brightens her day; co-worker Pauline says he brings a sparkle to the office. In Brent’s absence, protégé Nigel steps into the role of office irritant, wearing penis-themed glasses and mugging for attention. This sub-Brent is also seen as harmless — “He’s only having a laugh,” Karen says when an office bully challenges him. But the only one laughing is Brent himself: his shrill, awkward laugh is deployed at regular intervals, like the catchphrases Gervais has alternately lampooned and used in his other comedic roles.
It’s hard to focus on anything but Brent’s flaws because there is nothing else to the movie. Life on the Road is a testing ground for a hyper-specialized failure of the Bechdel test where not only are all women talking about men, they’re talking about one specific man: David Brent. And in this, at least, Gervais displays a desire for equality, forcing his male bandmates, manager, and co-workers to bask in his darkness as well. Any supplementary characters are squeezed to the edge, reduced to commenting on Brent’s antics, or inexplicably defending him.
The mockumentary format technically allows for this kind of single-character focus, but there’s no joy in spending so much unbroken, unrelieved time with such an unmitigated shit of a person. There’s no hero’s journey beyond the literal journey between southeast England’s empty venues and identikit hotels, no reflection on how Brent’s behavior affects others, no fundamental realizations about his unhealthy lifestyle. The only lesson to take from Life on the Road seems to be that it doesn’t matter how nasty, offensive, or downright unlovable you are. Somehow, people should still like you. It’s hard to see how anybody but Ricky Gervais could have come up with such a storyline.
Ricky Gervais’ David Brent: Life on the Road premieres on Netflix on February 10th.