Thursday, July 20, 2017
DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD
There are few living comic performers whose latest project one would always be curious to see. Ricky Gervais is high on my list. At 55, he has strutted across various platforms, from television shows to podcasts, from the stand up comedy stage to children's books and animation, with varying degrees of success. He never gives the impression that he's out to conquer the world, but rather, he's an inspired dabbler, as interested in form as content. David Brent: Life On The Road, currently on Netflix, is in some respects an exploration of everything he's learned along the way, and a showcase for his best and worst instincts.
Brent, of course, is the character Gervais created and played on The Office years ago on the BBC - a character so ridiculous that he became a cult figure and inspired the American show of the same name, making Gervais incredibly wealthy - and Brent hasn't changed much since then. He was an obnoxious office manager who imagined himself an entertainer. When his branch merged with another, he was so jealous of the new people that he experienced a meltdown and lost his job, or, in British lingo, was made "redundant." Steve Carrell's version of the character for American television was not nearly as stupid. In fact, Carrell's Michael Scott was strangely competent, a goof with good ol' American work ethic. Gervais kept Brent a buffoon throughout, and Life On The Road picks up the narrative many years later, with Brent now working as a salesman at a chemical company, but convinced he can be a rock 'n roll singer. By the end of the U.S. version of The Office, Carrell's character was married with kids and, we imagine, maturing. As if appalled by such a notion, Gervais sends his great comic creation into the maw of England's night life, letting him groove in all of his outdated glory. Brent, ever the optimist, thinks he can score a recording contract by dressing like David Essex and singing about Native Americans. ("Soar like an eagle, squat like a pelican.")
Though Gervais has succeeded in many areas - sometimes I think there's nothing he wouldn't try - he's still struggling with directing a movie. He's not a natural at it. He tends to think in bits (here's Brent making a fool of himself at work, here's Brent getting a tattoo, here's Brent watching in horror as a piggish woman devours the contents of his hotel mini-bar), but the arc of the story and its ultimate payoff isn't much different than what we've seen in various Gervais projects, as if Brent lives in the world of television programs, and can only grow a tiny bit each time out, only to quickly return to his old mannerisms. The big difference between the Brent of 2016 and the one we used to see on The Office is that Gervais mines this current version for more pathos. As if the embarrassing schmaltz from Derek somehow dripped into this movie, Gervais is relentless in depicting Brent as a friendless misfit. When Brent, gambling his savings on a band, a tour bus, and a camera crew, toddles out of his office to go on a self-booked tour, the melancholy old theme of The Office - "Handbags and Glad Rags" - plays him out in a manner that is self consciously Chaplinesque. Worse, a few of Brent's more sensitive co-workers step up to say things like, "Gee, he's not such a bad guy. Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for him." Did Gervais feel the morons at home needed a Greek chorus to remind them that Brent is a pitiable figure? Gervais is a good enough actor to have made that point on his own.
Much of the movie involves Brent at odds with his band. In short, they treat him with an offhand cruelty, making no room for him on the bus, and not joining him for a drink unless they're paid for their time. Again, anything to make Brent seem pathetic.
The band, Foregone Conclusion, is made up of guys much younger than Brent, and they're mostly there to complain about the quality of his songs. Strange, though, the tunes are catchy, and Gervais isn't a bad singer. He's on key, anyway. If we're supposed to laugh at Brent's lack of talent, it doesn't quite work. There are worse singers and bands playing in clubs all over the world every night. In fact, when Brent prowls the stage with his maracas, he actually has a bit of rock star flair. Is it Gervais' vanity that keeps him from playing Brent as entirely without talent? The band as a whole is an indistinct lot, making one wonder if Gervais missed something by not collaborating with his longtime writing partner Stephen Merchant. On The Office, where Merchant was co-writer and co-director, the entire cast was given individual quirks and personalities. Here, it's Brent and only Brent, and though that makes some sense in that he's a selfish character, it weakens the movie. (Conversely, Merchant's solo project, Hello Ladies, lacked Gervais' silliness.) Had Merchant been involved here, one guesses, the band would've been more interesting, more developed. It's not hard to imagine Merchant and Gervais tackling this story from the point of view of a band on the road, exploring the grind of traveling and playing in clubs, while Brent looned about at the center. It might've worked better.
Brent is funniest when he's clueless, such as when he spews his offensive jokes without knowing the effect he has on people. He's less funny when Gervais relies on cheap bits, like a recurring gag about constipation, or a photo shoot where Brent models to the tune of Bowie's "Fashion." There's a moment near the end where Brent, with a bittersweet flourish typical of Gervais, laments coming back to his job after being on the road. He may be a failure, he says, but at least he tried. Besides, there's a woman at this office who seems to like him, and he has a buddy there who laughs at his jokes. If Gervais never allows Brent a victory, here's hoping Gervais gives the guy a nice place to land.