I can’t think of another example of a TV star who has managed to mar the fond memory of a brilliant creation as thoroughly as Ricky Gervais has done with The Office. That 2001 series about the cluelessly insufferable office worker David Brent, co-created by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, was startlingly original and laugh-out-loud funny. It secured Gervais’s fame, which he has spent the intervening years eroding up to the present day; by now, the sight of him smirking through a Golden Globes hosting gig is enough to make me change the channel.
Gervais’s post-Office projects have been extremely uneven — though I kind of liked Extras. I never thought Gervais’s pride would allow him to slink back to reviving the Brent character, but here we are with David Brent: Life on the Road, a feature film released theatrically overseas but making its premiere in America on Netflix starting Friday.
Life on the Road picks up Brent years after The Office, which you’ll recall was framed as a documentary about the character. Brent now concedes this may have made a mistake, because we see that he is treated as a joke by the people who remember him as a docu-star, and as a cipher by even more people who’ve forgotten his brief moment of fame. But Brent continues to pursue a dream we remember he’s long had — to be a rock star. Life is once again positioned as a documentary, one that follows Brent on his latest sad quest.
Life on the Road wants to give you some idea of how tedious it is to be a touring musician, and how tedious it is to be a musician stuck accompanying a boor like Brent. The film — written and directed by Gervais — achieves this all too well. The hour-and-a-half-plus seems twice as long, with Brent being constantly humiliated while grinning pathetically. Of course he’s a terrible musician, a terrible singer-songwriter, and a perfectly awful performer. Of course the musicians he’s hired ridicule him behind his back and think he’s a jerk.
Gervais also tries to extend his reputation as a bad-taste rebel by having Brent deliver lines that ridicule black people, overweight people, Chinese people, special-needs people — the list goes on and on. It doesn’t seem possible to laugh at Brent being oblivious to his own offensiveness. You can understand what Gervais was trying to do here — to deepen the Brent character, to add layers to his regrettable life. But the original Office did all that already — it remains a superb piece of work, one that Gervais has never managed to equal.
David Brent: Life on the Road is streaming now on Netflix.