In David Brent, Ricky Gervais has constructed a character that allows him to push the boundaries of good taste by presenting Brent as completely devoid of any self-awareness or understanding about what might be likely to cause offence. Through Brent, Gervais can go far beyond what he might be able to get away with in real life. Brent does not discriminate; offending everybody he encounters in this sequel-of-sorts to The Office, the television sitcom in which we first met him as the clueless, despised office manager at Wernham Hogg Paper Company. Picking up some 10+ years later, Brent has endured a nervous breakdown and is now working as a travelling salesman for Lavichem, a company that sells cleaning and hygiene products. Still based in Slough, the Berkshire town that was also the setting for The Office, Brent has aspirations of rock stardom despite a distinct lack of talent. Filmed in the same mock documentary style as the television series, Life on the Road is sporadically funny as it follows Brent on his self-funded concert tour with his band Forgone Conclusion, desperate and delusional in his bid to secure the interest of a record company.
Following an opening montage seemingly designed to make us understand how funny tampons are (who knew?), we reconnect with Brent at the offices of Lavichem where he is the subject of ridicule amongst his long suffering co-workers, almost all of whom find his non-stop banter – laden with sexist and otherwise offensive comments – unbearable. There are exceptions of course; the mousy Jo’s (Pauline Gray) affection is obvious to everybody but Brent himself, receptionist Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) finds him infinitely more tolerable than the boorish bully Jezza (Andrew Brooke) and the equally annoying Nigel is perhaps the first real friend that Brent has ever had. Of course, any efforts to make Brent aware of the inappropriateness of his behaviours in the workplace fail to sink in. Soon enough, it is sayonara Lavichem as our intrepid dunderhead cashes in his leave and pensions to hit the road in pursuit of his musical dream, accompanied by a new side-kick in the form of mixed-race rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), who serves as a convenient alibi anytime Brent unleashes with a burst of casual racism.
Johnson, who is the most interesting character of all as he tries to balance his loyalty to David with his own musical ambitions, serves as a conduit between Brent and a band that is nothing more than a collective of musicians happy to tolerate his ineptitude and lack of musical talent for the money. Brent organises an elaborate tour bus (even though none of the gigs are more than a couple of hours from home) from which he is banished and, with the band members refusing to even drink with him unless they are paid to do so, there seems little doubt that Gervais is targeting the pretention that exists amongst certain individuals within the music industry. The tour inevitably descends into farce with empty venues and spiralling overheads leaving Brent to count the costs, albeit much too late in the piece. Brent remains a sharp tragicomic creation whose on-screen resurrection will no doubt satisfy fans of The Office and maybe secure a few new converts along the way. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, but most of the funniest parts come via the songs, such as Equality Street and Native Americans, two tunes that Brent espouses as anti-racism anthems but are the exact opposite, while Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds is all kinds of wrong.
Rather than our pity, it seems that Gervais, who also wrote, directed and produced, wants us to like David Brent and that is a very big ask indeed. Sure, his mockers are presented as macho bullies, but Brent remains an irritating, ignorant buffoon for whom sympathy is hard to muster. Does he really deserve to be happy given that he remains blissfully unaware of just how obnoxious he is? As such, the final frame will leave people divided, their level of satisfaction with the ending no doubt aligned with just how loathsome they see him to be. It’s not as funny as the best bits of The Office, but Life on the Road has enough moments of mirth to justify Brent’s resurrection for a new generation.