Thursday, 16 March 2017

David Brent: Life on the Road (4½ Stars)

"You don't have to be on stage to be worth something".

This is a sequel to the TV series "The Office", which ran from 2001 to 2003. We had to wait 13 years for the film, but it was worth the wait. In the TV series David Brent was the manager of a paper company in Slough, supposedly the dullest town in England. I need to visit Slough one day to see if it's true. Since then he had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in a psychiatric facility. He now works as a sales representative for Lavichem, a company that sells exciting sanitary products such as tampons. David isn't satisfied with being a sales rep for the rest of his life. He dreams of becoming a big rock star.

"The Office" had a unique self-ironic format which confused television audiences and made it a failure when it was first broadcast. It was made in the style of a fly-on-the-wall reality show, with cameras following the activities of the company Wernham Hogg. The characters were aware they were being filmed and frequently spoke to the camera, as well as asynchronous interviews being blended in. However, it was an unreal reality show, since the company didn't exist. "The Office" is usually called a mockumentary, but I don't think the term applies. It wasn't a mockery of a documentary, it was a mockery of the reality shows that were becoming popular in the early 2000's.

"The Office" was conceived and written by Ricky Gervais, who also played David Brent. It was ahead of its time. It was cancelled after two seasons because of poor viewer figures, but it was posthumously hailed as a classic. It's now regularly shown as a rerun in England and all over the world.

"Life on the Road" follows David Brent as he takes three weeks unpaid vacation to make it big as a rock star. He hires musicians and a roadie, and off he goes to perform six gigs in Berkshire. For him it's all about the experience. He stays in hotels with the band, even though all six towns are close enough to commute from home.

The film's humour comes from David Brent's social awkwardness, more accurately from his ignorance of his social awkwardness. He alienates the other band members by unknowingly insulting them, and he alienates the audiences by singing inept protest songs. He never lacks confidence in himself, so when things go wrong he blames others.

There's an underlying tragic element to the story which uplifts the film from being only a comedy to a work of social significance. David Brent says he wants to be famous, but in actual fact he just wants people to like him. For some people it's easy to be popular, but for most of us it's a struggle to make friends. In David Brent we see an exaggerated portrayal of ourselves, so when we laugh at him we're really laughing at ourselves.

Ricky Gervais is a comic genius. "Genius" is an over-used word, but in his case it's appropriate. He can be funny without being funny. He excels in films like this.

In England the film has been released on Blu-ray, but Netflix has bought the exclusive rights in all other countries, so you can only watch the film online.

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