“Life on the Road,” according to the BBC, will feature Gervais as Brent, “a travelling salesman financing a UK concert tour in the hopes of fulfilling his dreams of becoming a rock star.” It’s the return of a comedy icon. It may also be a terrible idea.
It may not seem like that long ago, but the writer/director/actor/never-again awards show host first awkwardly stumbled into our lives over thirteen years ago, when “The Office” (which he created with Stephen Merchant) began trickling its way into America.
David Brent, the character at the center of Gervais and Merchant’s “mockumentary” about daily life at a paper company in Slough, was the boss you loved to hate (especially because he wasn’t your boss). Oblivious, childish and cruel, David Brent was unique to the world of comedy at that time, and thus made a major impact both in England and abroad.
It’s undeniable that David Brent is a massive part of Gervais’s identity, a well he’s gone back to for charity specials and YouTube. However, do we actually want a feature-length film version of David Brent’s antics?
One of the things about the British “Office” that proves fascinating is how much of it only works because of balance. Brent is so over-the-top a character that scenes which don’t offset his pettiness and ignorance with genuine human emotion prove painful to watch. Even when the character is embarrassing himself, he’s not sympathetic, just pitiful.
The British “Office’s” influence on television was downright seismic, creating a new look and feel for televised situational comedy, and its remakes spread the concept internationally: The American “Office” not only outlasted the original British one by years, it led to spiritual spin-offs like “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
And one of the major reasons why the American “Office” was more sustainable creatively than the British “Office,” in the long term, is that David Brent analogue Michael Scott (Steve Carell) showed actual moments of competence and self-awareness over the course of his years as regional manager. If he had shared Brent’s latent sociopathy, it simply wouldn’t have been believable for him to avoid getting fired; however, the character was a degree more likable and sympathetic, and thus Michael kept his job years longer than David did.
Meanwhile, while Gervais’s career took off after the original “Office,” its real breakout star was Martin Freeman, whose performance as underachieving but lovable salesman Tim is the emotional core of the show. Even when engaging in ridiculous pranks, Tim anchors the show in reality and gives us a hero to root for, thanks to Freeman’s affable everyman quality — a quality used (to very different effect) in his more recent roles in “Fargo” and “The Hobbit.”
In order for a full-length movie starring David Brent to be bearable, the character would either need to be tempered in some fashion — more humble and less obnoxious — or balanced out by the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, the synopsis as presented doesn’t suggest that the latter will be the case. And while the series finale of “The Office” did suggest Brent was capable of change, it’s unclear how much that will play into this new project.
You can’t accuse Gervais of being a one-hit wonder — well, technically you can, as he was part of a new wave band in the early 1980s (David Brent’s quest for musical stardom may not be too much of a stretch for the actor). But since “The Office,” Gervais has continued to try new things: His follow-up series “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short,” while recognizably his and Merchant’s work, featured new twists on the format. And his latest show, the Netflix-distributed “Derek,” has drawn controversy for what some see as a mocking portrayal of a mentally disabled person, but is at least an acting stretch.
In all those cases, though, Gervais has pulled back on the more abrasive aspects of his persona — the same aspects that made David Brent a standout character, but not a great person. In order to keep audience interest going for over 90 minutes, some degree of humanity is required of the lead character. Hopefully, David Brent can find his.