I don’t often write reviews. Largely because, as a filmmaker myself, I have to read them and also because I think that there’s a temptation amongst some ‘writers’ to pen the most biting and sarcastic things possible about films they don’t like, rather than simply enthusing about those they do.
It would appear, therefore, to be ironic that the film I’ve been motivated to review is the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, often thought of as one of our most sarcastic and biting comic voices.
Watch him on the Golden Globes, puncturing the egos of the mighty; listen to him in interviews, saying outrageous, Daily Mail-baiting things.
Watch him spend an enormous amount of his time online shining a spotlight on the abuse of animals and what we can do to prevent it.
If that feels contradictory to you, then that’s why I feel the need to write about his new film – because I don’t believe that it is.
In his key work with erstwhile writing and directing partner Stephen Merchant – The Office, Extras and Life is Short – the excruciating nature of self-delusion and hubris are Gervais’ bread and butter. But in my opinion, all of this misses the point.
To my mind, Ricky Gervais is one of the most openly compassionate comic writers we have and, for some bizarre reason, this is mistaken for arrogance – largely, I suspect, due to his ‘real-life’ comic persona specialising in saying the oft-thought but officially unthinkable.
Nowhere, however, is the genuine compassion at the heart of Gervais’ work more evident than in the character of David Brent, who first appeared in The Office, and is now headlining his own film, David Brent: Life on the Road.
How you react to David Brent depends largely on your self-awareness. David Brent is, let’s be honest, most of us. He wants to be loved, he tries too hard, he wants to be thought of as one of the good guys, but sometimes fails to appreciate the nuances of modern life.
In David Brent: Life on the Road, the 15 years since the ‘documentary’ The Office aired on BBC2 have not treated Brent well. In one of the most affecting sequences, we realise that he’s genuinely struggled with his mental health. But he still has hope, despite his reduction in rank to sales rep for a company called Lavichem, flogging toiletries to businesses.
It is here, in the new ‘office’, that we glimpse the heart of what Life on the Road is actually about. With only a few exceptions, his new co-workers aren’t even grudgingly tolerant of Brent’s ham-fisted attempts to be the office entertainer – they’re openly cruel.
In a last ditch attempt to follow his dreams – the dreams that have kept him afloat throughout a life of disappointment – he cashes in his pensions and maxes out his credit cards to hire a band and hit the road in search of fame and fortune.
In search of acceptance, in search of love.
The Office is often credited with transforming British TV comedy, but I think it’s credited for the wrong reasons. British humour is very, very good at being sarcastic, at railing against the stupidity of life – but doesn’t always handle genuine emotion terribly well. John Cleese, for instance, was the master when it came to puncturing pomposity, but it wasn’t until A Fish Called Wanda that he attempted to bring softer shades of love and longing into the mix – making the comedy all the more potent.
I’ve heard Ricky Gervais called mawkish and sentimental. Derek, his series for Channel 4, often takes the most heat for this. In truth, we don’t appear to like genuine emotion much in this country, as a society – we prefer things to be kept at arm’s length and Derek certainly transgresses that unwritten rule.
Life on the Road – perhaps surprisingly for a comedy as funny as it is – is about a great many serious things, none of which get short shrift. Look at the title again, shorn of the David Brent that sits up front for, I suspect, marketing purposes. It’s deceptively simple and plot-explaining, but there’s more to it than that.
Sure, it hits a few familiar beats from The Office but, in a way, that simply enforces what it has to say about the mean, unpleasant world we accept as normal these days, because they’re taken just that little bit further and, vitally, they hurt Brent just that little bit more.
Of course, the film contains more than its share of toe-curling moments. I laughed till I was nearly sick at some of the jokes and at the just-missing-the-point songs, which were funnier for being actually rather good musically. (I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this and Gervais, former pop vocalist lest we forget, has a fine, emotive singing voice even when delivering lines like “And you know just where you’ll be heading, It’s equidistant ‘tween London and Reading” in the exquisite Slough.)
I can only give my opinion – but I think it’s as funny as anything else I’ve seen this decade.
But, and this is a big but, the reason why I loved it as much as I did is because I cried more during this film than I have for years.
Brent’s attempts to find acceptance and a sense of self, without knowing how to go about it, lied to as he has been, as we all have been, by movies and television, ring true. His journey has a huge amount to say about the dark side of the human experience and about what truly makes it bearable. It’s about hope and the way it can keep you alive and destroy you, often in the same moment.
I went in expecting to see a comedy from a writer I admire. I walked out, wiping my eyes, feeling like I’d seen a work of art disguised as a comedy.
I’m sure I’m expected to give a star rating at the end of a review but, however much it will disqualify me as a source of poster quotes, I can’t bring myself to. Instead, I’ll leave you with this from Oscar Wilde which sums up my feelings about David Brent and Ricky Gervais better than I could.
“We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.”
David Brent: Life on the Road is screening at Phoenix from Fri 19 Aug – Thu 1 Sep