in ,

David Brent: Life on the Road


‘…feels every bit as much of an irredeemable failure as the main character is…’

Yikes! Who is, or was, David Brent? The name might be obscure to US audiences, but David Brent was the name of the central character in the original UK version of The Office, played by Ricky Gervais. That character was significantly changed to create the more sympathetic Michael Scott, as played by Steve Carell and evolving over the eight seasons that he was the featured star of the US version. The UK version only ran for two, so the David Brent character was never progressed in the same way; perhaps mindful of this, Gervais attempted to resurrect the character for this feature-length spin-off which vanished without a trace in 2016 and now appears on streaming.

David Brent is a deluded loser who has ridiculous dreams of success; working in a chemical-sales company in Slough that’s not dissimilar from the paper company he previously worked for, Brent is quickly carpeted by Human Resources for his loud and racist brand of humour. Brent decides to take a month out and hire some supporting musicians for a short tour of Southern England, but with awful songs, terrible management and personal vanity combining to pitiful effect, Brent’s pitiful efforts are doomed to depressing failure.

David Brent: Life on the Road followed on the heels of the success of The Office, but Gervais’ other big-screen projects (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying, Cemetery Junction) all fell flat, and if you’ve seen them, you’ll know why. Cringe comedy is very much an internet thing these days, inviting judgement and scorn for agreed failures and fails. But Brent’s story doesn’t seem to be taking place in that modern world; he hires a PR to drum up ticket sales, but he doesn’t seem to have any notion of how or why he might draw a crowd, and that lack of any kind of self-awareness makes for a two-dimensional character. Compare David Brent to the Michael Scott featured in the US Office episode Business School (3, 17) and the difference is stark; the UK version is just an insensitive oaf frantically virtue signalling about issues he doesn’t understand (Native Americans, the ‘disabled’), but the US version has unexpected depth and redemptive qualities, demonstrated when Michael Scott alone appreciates Pam’s paintings.

Oddly, Life on The Road finally gets somewhere in the last ten minutes, when Brent faces up to his failure and is unexpectedly placated by a member of his own band, forcing him to go back to his office with his tail between his legs. It’s the best scene in the film, even if it’s not funny; if Gervais had started his story from this point, Life on the Road might have worked better. There’s a gift to developing a character, and the US Office performed something of a miracle with Michael Scott; David Brent’s Life on the Road feels every bit as much of an irredeemable failure as the main character is.


Leave a Reply
  1. Honestly, Muppets most wanted was probably the only thing I’ve seen Gervais in that I liked. He just plays such unlikable characters that I can’t bear to watch them…

  2. His TV work, the only thing I really like is the original Office. The rest of it works best as short clips on the internet, for me anyway.

    I love his chat show appearances though, he has wit and charm and his Letterman appearances especially are hilarious. This is where I think he’s a great comedian, just that ability to chat and tell stories face to face. Some of the Golden Globes stuff is good too.

    I take your point about the bad jokes seeming like the actual joke due to drama deficiencies, but I think he’s said in interviews that the target in these scenarios is really polite society. So it’s the things that people say behind closed doors or that flash into their heads whilst they’re on the street. It’s a tight-rope, but one I think he generally walks successfully because I believe this kind of humour brings people closer together, and doesn’t divide them as is often claimed.

    I watched the invention of lying and thought it was pretty bad. Gervais was good in the Night at the museum franchise, and I think he should have carried on in that vein, but maybe wanted to try to branch out?

    I do think ultimately he has a sweet sentimental outlook and the painting of him as a kind of semi-racist dinosaur is inaccurate.

    Have you ever seen the Larry Sanders Show and did you like it?

    • Yes, even back when it was the Garry Shandlibg Show! Way ahead of its time…it feels like Gervais should have been a good fit for that kind of post-modern, pre 30 Rock comedy, but it seems that he didn’t quite fit in…I’ll take a look at his talk so stuff. It always seemed to me that his willing to make fun of himself was to be applauded, but the lack of interest in projects like this movie made me wonder if his heart wasn’t in it. Although comedy hasn’t changed in a good way since The Office UK or US.

  3. I dont know why I keep turning up in your comments to put contrary views, I’m sorry about this!

    But honestly I think Gervais is the best British comic of the last 20 or so years, hands down.

    His comedy comes from a line of traditional American tv comedy, especially the Larry Sanders Show which I loved at the time and still do, a work of genius.

    Such comedy doesn’t translate well to movies for a number of reasons, but tv rarely does crossover successfully anyway. I also think he should have partnered with a movie screenwriter and experienced movie director to help him out.

    I disagree on the interpretation of Brent’s character. His crime is to dare to dream. Look at the other office workers in the UK Office, they are run down, depressed drones, treadmilling towards death. At least Brent tries to live, most of the others (bar Tim) have given up.

    The truly ugly character in that show is actually Lee, Dawn’s partner. Can you see the difference between Brent’s idiocy and Lee’s nastiness?

    And I don’t undertstand why the review ignores the sweet story of Tim & Dawn, which is at the heart of the UK show, and perhaps aligns with the sentiment of the Pam episode you mention?

    Yeah Gervais’s movies are crap, but his Brent character is genius. It’s so powerful that people seem to think Gervais is Brent, which is so unfair.

    And behind all of this of course are the thought-police, we the public should not be allowed to relax and enjoy comedy that goes to darker places. Which I would argue is exactly what the public are currently being starved of.

    Gervais represents the most dangerous kind of artist, the non-apologetic liberal, and that is someone the current dominant political right culture cannot tolerate.

    Again my apologies for getting too huffed up, but this a topic I care deeply about.

    • Love to hear other perspectives, no apology required! I’ll answer this in more detail when I get home. But I’d agree that there’s reasons why Gervais has been a big deal for a while, even if cinema is not necessary his thing. Will formulate and return!

    • Let’s agree about a bunch of things for starters. Gervais is probably one if not the most successful British comic working in tv in the last 20 years. All his movies have points of interest, and I’ve seen pretty much everything he’s doen apart from his recent tv. And you are right that he should have got a creative team together on this. I take your point about Brent’s character being a dreamer compared to the sour other characters in the Office UK, but my memories of the UK version are considerable hazier than the US version, where pretty much all the office characters have a dream or a side-hustle. I’ll stick to my original point which is that whether you dig Gervais comic ideas or not, his development lets him down. I actally liked the end of Life on the Road, it does have some emotional heft, and that wouldn’t be the case if there was nothing going on at all. Moving from tv to film shouldn’t have been such a problem for Gervais, but I don’t think it’s the dark places that are the issue here. Both versions of The Office make fun of bad jokes, racist humour, sexist behaviour, and that’s part of the target/subject. But if some kind of human drama doesn’t kick off alongside that, then it just looks like these bad jokes ARE the jokes. Like the UK version, as you mention, the US Office manages to position a central romance or three alongside the gags, but Gervais doesn’t attempt anything like that at all here; the romance is literally one second from the end of the film. I’m not as much of a fan of Gervais as you are, but he’s a real talent, and I’m surprised he’s not made the jump into movies, despite several swings. How would you rank his tv work?

  4. I’m not really comfortable with Gervais/Brent but ‘Cemetery Junction’ has its moments though it ultimately doesn’t work. I used to work near the real Cemetery Junction in Reading around the time the film was set, so it did make some sense to me. It’s also notable for starring a young Felicity Jones.

    • I’m going to take this tip seriously and rewatch Cemetery Junction; there are merits in all Gervais’ films, and I think the one you suggest might be worth another look. I remember the hype working against it at the time.

  5. I rather liked The Invention of Lying.

    Here in the US, people watch reruns of the Steve Carrel office obsessively. It’s a beloved show but I could never get into it. It’s a little like the film Office Space for me….hits a bit too close to home!

    • Watched Invention for Tina Fey, it’s the best of the Gervais vehicles, but still didn’t click for me.

      The Office US was something I avoided for a decade for similar reasons. But I was wrong, now watching for the third time, that show is worth getting obsessed about, some striking episodes and surprising storylines…

      • I would have to get over my aversion to shows/films where the characters talk & look directly at the camera. I’m sure there are exceptions but I generally dislike that style.

        Gervase lost me when he was so cutting as host of the Golden Globes. Perhaps I should blame the people at the top who hired him as he did his thing. Time and a place for it, but there’s roasting and then just insulting people to the face, knowing they have to take it so their reaction doesn’t end up on social media just seems rude……

        • Agreed. Gervais may have won a few fans with a combative style, but lost many more by flat out insulting those who turned up. It’s not as if he was at such a lofty height that he could do it…

          Even watching that episode about Pam’s art show should demonstrate how much more value and compassion is in the US version. The dinner party that Michael and Jan throw is also an incredible bit of tv, it’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in modern guise, they really opened up a seam that went far beyond cringe comedy…

          So no Election for you? No Ferris Bueller? No forth wall breaks?

          • Never got past the first few episodes to get to the good stuff you’re mentioning.

            Election/FB….just meh, I guess. Don’t hate, but don’t really like either.

            I’m sure there’s an exception to my 4th wall rule but I’m having trouble thinking of one…oh! I know. I do like The Big Short.

            • The Office US is pretty uncertain until halfway series 2, but then it hits the sweet spot. The presentation is less important when the characters start to live inside your head…must go back and look at Big Short again, found it a bit overstuffed if educational…

  6. Sounds like he’s on brand then. The trailer looked OK, if you’re into that kind of thing. I appreciate the way he really marked his own niche for this kind of humour, but it’s off-putting. Can’t say I love it, but I respect it.

    I’d heard of this, but none of the other Gervais movies you mentioned even rang a bell.

    • The Office US is such a surprisingly well developed show, but the whole thing was originally Gervais’ idea, and like you, I do respect that vision. Unfortunately, the Americans made a far better job of developing this character; without pathos or empathy, he’s just an excuse to say racist, sexist things…

      • I did have some sympathy for Brent in the UK Office. He’s a jerk, but you get the sense that’s just the way he is, and nobody likes him and he doesn’t have any friends. He keeps trying, but it’s all counterproductive because he can’t relate to people.

        Was The Extras any good? I’ve got those DVDs lying around and was going to give the show a try at some point.

        • I never got into Extras, but it was well received at the time; I just chose not to mention it because it didn’t fit my argument…if there was ever a chance to make something of David Brent, then a feature film would be it, but aside from a grace note at the end, it’s very reperative and shallow stuff in da movie…in the US version, his relationships with Jan and then Holly are remarkably dramatic and strangely moving, but there’s none of that here…

  7. Gervais is an acquired taste that I don’t always acquire so I’ll Nope this. I used to love his radio show back in the day with Carl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant.

Leave a Reply