Life in The Well isn’t so bad. The first few months were hard but once I’d arranged things and got everything how I wanted it, I was pretty comfortable. The only problem is entertainment. The only things that fall into The Well are small animals and the occasional discarded crisp packet so I have to be pretty open minded when it comes to entertainment. Crisp crumbs are a welcome break from raw squirrel though. Today, some careless passer-by dropped an Amazon gift voucher so that opened things up a bit. The voucher was for £4.45 so I would have to think carefully. After much deliberation I decided on “David Brent: Life on the Road” (2016). At 95 minutes it would give a welcome respite from the numbing boredom and sporadic, vain attempts to attract the attention of the silhouettes that briefly peer into The Well from time to time. I brushed the moss off chair-rock and placed it in front of the TV-Wall. Friend-rock was nowhere to be seen, he had been strangely absent for a while now. TV-Wall fizzed to life and my cozy dwelling was filled with brilliant, entertaining light.
David Brent: Life on the Road is a film that raises a lot of questions for me. Such questions as, why would someone who dislikes Ricky Gervais (Writer, Director and Star) so much be interested in this film? Like any consumer of entertainment, I am always ready to be surprised. I am ready to be proved wrong and have to change my opinion. Even if my opinion of the man himself does not change, maybe I can be persuaded that he can create something brilliant or at least good? Maybe there is something to what people say about him and I’ve just been missing the joke for all these years? Maybe?
But no such luck. Seconds into the film and the viewer comes across a blockade. Manned by merciless, gray-faced guards brandishing weaponry far in excess of the importance of their charge, this blockade stands, firmly locked against those would attempt to enter. And even when the opportunity comes to cross that threshold, the sound will destroy the strong and drive the weak to madness. That Laugh. That laugh. An exhale mixed with a grating tone of condescension and desperation. A pallid, clammy hand holds your throat as the hissing syllable wheezes into your ear. You cannot escape it. You are the prisoner of the laugh. It was, for me, a clanging reminder of everything I despised about Gervais and his abrasive style.
The character, David Brent has a chip on his shoulder. He believes he deserves fame. He had a brief taste of it as part of the BBC2 documentary “The Office” back in two thousand and cough-cough-cough (Yes, a real joke that is in this real film), and he needs more. He has not forgotten his rock star days as frontman of the band Foregone Conclusion and he wants another bite at the pie. We join him as he prepares to embark on a county wide, three-week tour. Convinced this will lead to the record deal, recognition, fame and fortune that is his destiny. The film follows him through the tour, the ups and downs, the frustrations, the triumphs, the highs and lows and explores what it is to want something you may never achieve. Or does it? Or does it just repeatedly confound the viewer as they try to piece together what, exactly is supposed to be funny about what is happening?
Is it funny that no one else thinks Brent is funny? He delivers painful joke after painful joke and the other characters smile nervously and cringe. But what’s more stupefying is the characters who seem to enjoy his tired, desperate observations and slow wit. Pauline (Jo Hartley), the hinted love interest, is positively in awe of him. Despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to think he’s actually funny. Is it maternal pity or misplaced Stockholm syndrome that causes her attraction towards this toadish creature? I don’t know. Even the receptionist, Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) says he “brightens her day”. On the one hand we have a character painted as the most pitiful, humourless excuse for a man and on the other we are barraged by character witnesses speaking to the positive effect he is having on them.
Oh, and his funny fucking mate. Oh my. His funny friend, Nigel (Tom Bennett). The crimes you have committed by encouraging that man, Nigel. Your punishment cannot be painful enough.
One of the risks of the “mockumentary” format is that it can allow for very lazy writing. Characters can simply say what they are feeling with no apparent justification or reasoning. We just cut away to a talking head and Nigel cheerfully declares that (to paraphrase): “No-one understands him but me, and no-one understands me but him”. Therefore robbing the audience of working that out for themselves. It can be done well but there are some particularly egregious examples in this film.
Brent repeatedly makes inappropriate comments to female colleagues in the opening minutes of the film. Serena (Abbie Murphy) who receives the main thrust of his misdirected woo, is permitted one talking head segment in which says she does not like Brent and that she’s sure this documentary will paint her in a poor light. And then that’s it. She disappears for almost the entire rest of the film. This leads us to more questions: Are we laughing with Brent? Are we laughing at him? If it is funny that he says sexist, homophobic, racist and generally ignorant things, why are they repeated so much and played for laughs? The film attempts to have its offensive joke cake and tut-to-camera-in-feigned-disapproval too. Does Gervais think Brent is a mirror image of himself? Does he think that Brent, who is such a ridiculous character, is nothing like the suave, eloquent, charming Gervais? Or is it that no one is quite sure where the line between Gervais and Brent is and this film makes no attempt to separate them? Or is my mild discomfort supposed to be the joke? I found The Office quite entertaining at the time, until the discomfort outweighed the entertainment and I had to stop. Maybe that’s the problem: I have had my fill of being uncomfortable for comedy’s sake. I am full to dolly’s wax with discomfort and cannot carry my greasy plate back to the buffet table.
It makes it very hard to concentrate on a film when you can’t keep these nagging questions from your thoughts. Questions that crawl across your skin like insects. The man in the pith helmet can tell you that the question-insect is harmless all day long but that thing has fangs.
The tour begins and we are introduced to the band. The reluctant sound engineer, the affable and competent rapper and the bassist, keyboardist, drummer and guitarist who fill out the on-stage lineup. None of the characters are particularly filled out apart from Doc Brown’s Dom Johnson (credited as Ben Bailey Smith). He provides a welcome voice of reason and sanity during Brent’s desperate spiral. In fact, all the performances are pretty good. Even Gervais’, as much as I’d hate to say it. He effectively portrays a desperate man’s pitiful attempts to make himself relevant (This is where I get to glance at the camera to make sure you got the joke. Did you?)
From the start, the theme of desperation is loud and clear. Brent has cashed in his one or more of his pensions to pay for this tour and has no qualms about sinking even more money into it. But the desperation is clear. This is his last chance and it has to work. This is the story of a man building his a monument to his own despair. There is even a token offering to some realistic portrayal of mental health problems. Brent mentions having suicidal feelings, taking Prozac and the resultant weight gain. But don’t worry, there’s a cheap weight joke in there in case you were worried the fun was going to stop even for a second. We are briefly, and inconsequentially shown him visiting his therapist but more telling is a few shots later on showing his home. A lonely new-build with personality free furniture and Sainsbury’s wall art.
As the tour progresses we see that Brent has surrounded himself with a group of people who despise him. He yearns for their respect but because of his awkward manner and painful interactions he has only their contempt. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Or we supposed to feel bad for not feeling sorry? What does this film want me to think? Because what it’s making me think is: I am angry and confused. I want to stop watching this but like a colleague with their tie caught in a paper shredder, I kind of want to see where this is going. To its credit, the film is never boring. I did not want to turn off because I was bored. Gervais is a competent enough director in this format without showing any real flair.
The songs in this film are never really bad enough to be remarkable. Gervais obviously considers himself a good songwriter and in the same way that Brent cannot allow himself to be the butt of a joke, Gervais could not have a truly bad song with his name on it. They are fine. Although it does raise the question of why “… a rep who doesn’t want to be a rep” would write so many songs about being a rep. The songs are mildly offensive but, like everything in this film, they assume the justification: No, no, it’s fine because we know it’s offensive, so it’s satire, isn’t it? That means it’s fine. It’s fine. It’s not offensive because we know it’s offensive.
The song “Please don’t Make Fun Of The Disableds” (laughin yet?) is a prime example. Brent makes a genuine plea for equal treatment of people with disabilities but does it without any idea of how to construct language around a sensitive topic. That’s the joke. Not even a bad one, really. But it sprays itself into your ears with such a self-aware tongue-in-cheek attitude that it comes off unfulfilling and annoying. Such lines as “Whether mental in the head or mental in the legs” lack the subtlety to make you consider any of the relevant issues but aren’t brazen enough to have any shock value. Every song is glancing back at the camera to see if you’re paying attention. They’re all checking the reactions of every viewer to make sure they get the joke. And when the song only sees blank faces, vague smiles and frowns of concern, it doubles down and leans even harder into being the most mediocre it can be. The songs perfectly capture the spirit of both Brent and Gervais: Self-conscious, weak and tired, and always checking to see if you get the joke, even though the joke is that the joke isn’t good.
It’s always interesting to see the “Big Laugh” from the trailer in context, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Brent fires a t-shirt gun into the crowd and hits a woman in the face. Much hilarity is made of her weight. Can you imagine how funny that is? A woman is struck in the face, falls over and is then comforted by friends as she recovers from the shock. Her face reddened with bruising embarrassment. She tries to laugh it off, tears welling up in her eyes. The stinging welt on her cheek throbbing. She can feel the eyes of the crowd on her. She knows what they’re thinking. They are silent but she knows. They’ve been thinking it her whole life. Her Mother was right. Her teachers were right. She’s just a fat cow. Wait, what’s this? What? The man said what? He said She can keep the t-shirt? She can have the t-shirt that just humiliated Her in front of all these people? Doesn’t that make it worthwhile? She can change things now. She can make her life better. She can love herself at any size now She has this t-shirt that hit her in the face.
Brent also says the N-word [No, I’m not writing it. That word is far too old and ugly and powerful], 4 ½ times but the joke doesn’t really land. It’s just uncomfortable.
If anyone still cares there are SPOILERS FROM NOW UNTIL STATED.
The film ends with some forced sentimentality; The sound engineer paying out of pocket for the fake snow required for the stage show; Gervais forcing a tear during a talking head. The other character’s, who have had no reason to change their minds about anything all suddenly display some affection for Brent. A short time ago the band were being paid £25 an hour to have an after show drink with him, but now they think he might be an alright sort of chap. Brent shows a baffling level of self-awareness and comes to terms with his own failure. The film closes as he leaves the office on a coffee run with Pauline, the love interest, a woman who has no reason to like him and whom he would never go for because his own sense of entitlement would, I assume, only allow him to settle for 1990s Pamela Anderson.
END OF SPOILERS
The film, like its main character (and possibly its creator), is completely delusional. It cannot decide what it is trying to say, leaving the audience baffled and tired. None of the jokes really work, I don’t think I even chuckled once, let alone laughed throughout and was just left with a sense of hollow numbness. Which seems like a bit of a problem for a comedy. I cannot recommend this to anyone who is not so wholly bought into the idea of the Gervais-iverse that they are susceptible to his cheap tricks and dull gags. It is competently constructed, at least. The cameras were pointing at the actors and the sound was recorded and is in sync with the pictures.
Brent’s swansong poses one last question: Can something be both saccharine and venomous?
Movie Review by Sam Rae
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