The success of The Office may endure 15 years later, but the initial success primarily depended on the television culture that existed during the late 90’s and early 2000’s – the popularity of mockumentaries like Airport and the birth of reality TV stars thanks to ‘social experiments’ such as Big Brother; and for the first time we were seeing ‘normal’ people get column inches and becoming famous for no apparent reason. At that time David Brent was clearly a product of all these things, a crude and cynical amalgamation of the drawbacks of exposing a (probably) emotionally and socially vulnerable person to the unrelenting wrath of the viewing public. He lived in a world of trading estates, beige and nondescript office buildings, but in his mind he existed somewhere that only gave television exposure to people with talent. But over a decade later, television culture has become something we’d never have imagined. We’re in a post modern age that doesn’t necessarily have a place for a person like Brent.
The strengths of Life of the Road lie in the fact that it maintains that dreary kitchen sink aesthetic of ennui, and a clean cut format that of someone simply being documented living their lives. No experimental camera shots or avant-garde editing needed.
Now, David has the benefit of hindsight. 15 years on, David Brent – the man, the maverick, the philosopher, the entertainer – has changed. On the surface he’s the same mildly irritating and socially clueless character we know. He’s no longer ‘the boss’, now working as a rep for an indistinct middle of the road company selling sanitary products to other indistinct middle of the road companies. As one co-worker remarks, this world is ‘crueller’ than the one of 2002. Where his Wernham Hogg co-workers seemed aware that David was essentially a good guy that didn’t know how to conduct himself socially, his new co-workers simply don’t care and will reject him straight out.
As the film progresses we get glimpses into a personal life we were never privy to during The Office years. Maybe he isn’t as completely clueless as we had once imagined. Maybe he’s a desperately misunderstood human being who believes he needs to be universally liked by absolutely everyone to have any value. Maybe he is, like so many of us, lost. We learn that after the ‘success’ of The Office he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a number of months on antidepressants. During a meeting with his therapist, in his effort to appear reformed to the cameras he can’t help but stumble on a freudian slip or two and we are led to believe he may actually still be in quite a dark place.
It’s these nuances that make him so enduring, and all the scenes where you are cringing your face inside out become a little easier to bear. He develops from this exasperating and (at times) arrogant idiot, into a much milder version of himself, perhaps one softened by his experiences and age; the underdog who you’d actually quite like to see succeed. A man who isn’t actually a bad musician at all… it’s just his clueless lyrics that take away any credibility he may be afforded otherwise. This is where I feel Life on the Road extends the character away from its TV prequels – perhaps we grew to like David a little better by the end of The Office Christmas Specials, but only marginally. Somehow, now he seems more human.
The main problem with adapting the 20-30 minute concise and witty episodes into a 90 minute feature length film is maintaining the balance of mockumentary tedium and comedic momentum; for the most part Gervais succeeds wonderfully. Having a wealth of musical talent behind him arguably helps as many sequences are moved along by full length sets where you’re tickled either by his wikipedia inspired lyrics (wikipedia has a lot to answer for) or the reactions of the unsuspecting patrons who are watching him for the first time. While normally the jokes would begin to feel a little stagnant after the first half hour, these musical interludes make the 96 minute running time feel a lot less.
It would be wrong to go into Life on the Road expecting a straight up The Office follow up. In fact, it would be wrong to try and compare them in any way other than they share a character. The story of Brent continues, but the universe it resides within is different. Life on the Road is a different concept for a contemporary viewer, one that has lived through the culture change of the last decade and has some understanding of the world that David Brent has come from. I can’t lie; initially I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t going to get even the smallest of glimpses into the lives of other much loved characters from The Office (maybe Dawn & Tim standing at the back of a gig or Gareth lurking in the background) but Gervais definitely made the right decision to avoid these kind of call backs. They run the risk of ending up being a bit… gimmicky and none of those call backs would have added to David’s story. As he realises by the end of the film, he doesn’t need to add ‘rockstar’ to his CV for people to like him – David Brent is enough.
Life on the Road maintains a careful equilibrium between arrogance, English melancholy and misunderstood rock star wannabe. It keeps Brent just annoying enough to get plenty of laughs, while preserving enough depth to ultimately make you care. Don’t expect The Office and you won’t be disappointed.