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.