Stuff your indie dramas, away with your biopics, Tom Fordy reveals why Ricky Gervais’s latest outing as David Brent could have far wider impact than you might imagine
Before David Brent had even dusted off his Sergio Georgini jacket, fans had written off David Brent: Life on the Road as a poor imitation of The Office – the film equivalent of some drunk bloke with a guitar at your party, who thinks it’s hilarious to play Freelove Freeway over and over until it’s just not funny anymore (guilty).
But just like there’s more to David Brent than a funny dance, beneath the surface of Life on the Road is something smarter and more poignant than you might imagine – an astute, quite brilliant film about the tragedy of being a man.
And not just any man, but the most downtrodden and socially inept of them all: the down-on-his-luck British bloke.
While Hollywood leading men are skewed towards the hyper-masculine, the Brentmeister General strolls in like a vision of real-world manliness, his off-the-peg suit, that desire to feel loved and a knack for repelling almost every woman he meets.
Cashing in his pension to go on tour and chase his last shot at fame, he’s clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but his problems are relatable to men of all ages: frustration at being stuck in a crap job; crushing social awkwardness; the desire for companionship; that lingering sense that you’re just not cool enough; and the desperate need for a smidgen of popularity.
In some ways we’re all Brent. In 13 years, this character’s ability to hold up a mirror to our own faults and foibles with his skin-crawling cock-ups hasn’t faltered. And this time around he does it tenfold, because he’s more tragic than ever – paying his backing band an hourly rate just to have a pint with him, or being kicked off his own tour bus because no one wants to be his mate.
And come on, even the Swindon lot (those little slugs) went for a drink with him. If you don’t feel just the slightest pang of sadness for Brent, you’re probably too much of a real-life Chris Finch (bloody good rep) to understand what it’s like to feel left like an outsider.
Though part of Brent’s comic genius is that he’s a man wildly out of touch – see any of his songs, including the newly penned Native American – this time around he has his finger on the pulse of men’s issues, particularly in one telling scene when Brent reveals he suffered a nervous breakdown.
At a time when people are calling for a greater awareness of men’s mental health issues – such as the #ITSOKTOTALK campaign, which Ricky Gervais himself joined on social media – adding this dimension to one of the great comedy characters is a significant step forward.
Alan Partridge also had his struggles with mental health too, but they were played for laughs. While Alan gorged on Toblerones and drove to Dundee in his bare feet, Brent shows understated vulnerability in these scenes. It’s ballsy stuff, especially on the cinema screen.
David Brent already had the perfect send off with The Office 2003 Christmas specials. The promise of a second date and telling Finchy (bloody good rep) to fuck off was all Brent needed for a small moment of redemption. That we find Brent is still the same plonker he was 13 years ago might spoil the magic of that ambiguity for many, but it also transforms David Brent into a true cinematic hero.
For all the iron-stomached bravery of a boxing champion, the caped crusaders of DC and Marvel, or other giant musclebound men, Brent is a hero for the insecure, slightly awkward, not-as-cool-as-we’d-like–to-be man (that’s pretty much all of us, then). Brent can’t help putting his innermost fears and flaws out there. And he’s at his absolute best when he’s most vulnerable – scarily close to home and more real than ever.
Uniquely British, we laugh at him but deep down, somewhere right down in the bottom of our cerebral cortex, we know we’re actually laughing at ourselves.
Life on the Road might continue the trend of small screen to big screen success, or it may not. Die-hard 'Werham Hoggites' may lap it up, or they simply may decide it’s not for them. But what cannot be ignored is that it’s one of the most brutally honest films about being a bloke ever made.
Now get the guitar.