Reviving classic comedies on the big screen is a treacherous business. The desire to live up to cherished memories whilst also creating fresh ones is often an impossible challenge – just ask the makers behind Dad’s Army. That’s why Ricky Gervais’ move to bring back his most iconic creation nearly 13 years after he first bowed out in a pair of peerless festive specials is as ballsy as it is unexpected.
Sadly, it’s a risk that doesn’t come close to paying off. Life on the Road is a patchy comic reunion that’s more offensive and depressing than it is cringingly funny, and it robs its shabby antihero of his perfect ending.
Things kick-off promising enough with David Brent (Gervais) making a welcome return to the mockumentary spotlight as he prepares to head out on tour with hired band Forgone Conclusion for a final shot at stardom. Before he hops on the tour bus (actually a Vauxhall Insignia), though, we’re given a run-through of his post-Wernham Hogg life as a sales rep for a toiletry supply company.
Brent is in his element when lingering around the drab familiarity of Lavichem’s head office, trading awkward banter with his gurning sidekick (Tom Bennett) and generally annoying his co-workers with his desperate bids for attention. It’s almost comforting to know he’s still an overgrown class clown who just wants to be liked.
But as soon as he’s out on the road and the focus is solely on him, Brent’s mean-spirited nature becomes uncomfortably obvious. Without a clutch of zany, sympathetic underlings to off-set him, Brent is just a racist, homophobic misogynist who only cares about his own selfish needs.
There’s no attempt at irony or subtlety in many of his off-colour remarks – most of the gags boil down to laughing at the fat chick or ethnic minority Brent has just offended.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing – after all, Alan Partridge is hardly likeable – but it becomes a problem when we’re asked to feel sorry for Brent.
During a string of typically candid interviews, Brent gradually reveals he suffered a mental breakdown after being made redundant and is now battling to overcome depression. At one point he even admits to knowing no-one really likes him. But knowing you’re unlikeable doesn’t make you suddenly likeable.
That’s why Gervais’ overzealous attempt to build sympathy for Brent in the final act feels unearned. He has no arc and shows no sign of change or growth. And yet, he’s given a shot at redemption when all the co-workers and band members he has mistreated and offended suddenly rally to award him a triumphant send-off he doesn’t deserve.
Life on the Road has its moments – the songs are surprisingly catchy and feature plenty of lyrical genius (“Then to Gloucester, I get a Costa/ Hard shoulder? Coffee holder.”) – but its not enough to sweeten the bitter taste left by the film’s nasty sense of humour.
In the closing moments Brent talks about saving up to reunite the band for yet another tour – let’s hope someone persuades him to take a pause for the cause. Permanently this time.
Director/Writer: Ricky Gervais
Stars: Ricky Gervais, Jo Hartley, Doc Brown, Mandeep Dhillon
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