It’s tough to pinpoint when Ricky Gervais went from brilliant comedic auteur to “him again?” status: The Office is rightfully hailed as a classic, Extras had some truly funny moments, and even Life’s Too Short scored on occasion (though that was more frequently due to co-star Rosamund Hanson, who would’ve been made a star by a better show).
But regardless of where he went—questionable series, bad movies, controversial hosting gigs—Gervais knows where he came from, and he heads back to The Office, sort of, with David Brent: Life On The Road. The movie had a theatrical release in the U.K. last year, and it was met with lukewarm reviews; for the rest of the world, it’s straight to Netflix, which also handled Gervais’ Special Correspondents and his intellectual-infirmity comedy Derek. That was probably a wise move, making Life On The Road as easy to get as possible, since its appeal will almost surely be limited to diehard Office fans—and they likely won’t contribute to much positive word of mouth to this sorta-sequel.
It isn’t terrible: Gervais still wears Brent like a tailored suit, but 15 years of age has taken a lot of the bite out of both the performer and the character. Gervais, I think, tried to make Brent a little more pathetic here than he was during the Office years; he’s no longer the boss, but just a lowly salesperson, shit on by his peers because they’re no longer required to be obsequious. It’s telling of Life’s tone that Brent now works for a company that sells toilet products: It’s going for a much easier laugh now, and it rarely gets there. That The Office revolved around life at a paper company gave it a blank canvas in a way; here, it gives Brent a chance to make lame jokes about tampons.
Pretty quickly, though, Brent leaves the office to pursue his lifelong dream, singing for a band called Foregone Conclusion. Since his old band no longer exists—there’s a funny-ish, Spinal Tap-esque scene in which he describes where each ended up—he’s forced to recruit a bunch of session players, and he even adds a rapper, played by Doc Brown, to try and hip things up. It doesn’t work, unsurprisingly.
The movie’s saggy middle is the tour itself, with Brent hiring an expensive bus to go with his expensive band, cashing in his pensions in order to pursue the dream of doing something he’s not very good at. The musicians are competent but the songs—which should’ve/could’ve been the highlight of Life On The Road—are good for a chuckle, but never a belly-laugh. The running joke throughout is that the rest of the band absolutely hates Brent. They can barely stand to be around him, they know his music is ridiculous, and they mock him at every turn. Having this gang of new faces is Road’s biggest weakness: It’s as if Gervais thought he was the only thing that mattered about The Office, and that his talent would illuminate everyone around him. Instead, we get a bunch of asides and conversations from characters that have no backstory and who aren’t great comedians. There are even vague surrogates for Gareth and Dawn back at the home office, but they’re impossible to care about.
Even with all of those missteps, Life On The Road might have ended up as a half-funny trifle—a bit of fan service for those who couldn’t get enough David Brent when The Office closed up shop. But in its final act, David Brent: Life On The Road tries to find some kind of emotional growth for Brent and his bandmates. It’s a completely unearned 180 that feels out of step with the original character and the tone of this new chapter. The Office explored a complicated relationship between an annoying, delusional, sometimes sweet man who desperately wanted to be liked and the underlings that learned to tolerate him. After two seasons, they understood each other better. This add-on tries to run that whole complicated cycle in just 96 minutes, using less than a tenth of the inspiration.