As I’ve revisited the American version of The Office lately, the same thing keeps happening: I’ll be partway through an episode, laughing uproariously at something Creed or Kevin said, smiling at the early progression of the Jim and Pam relationship, and generally having a fine old time, when Michael Scott will go a step past what my mortification tolerance will allow, and I will have to, at minimum, jump ahead to the next scene, if not try another episode.
Now, I’ve seen all of these stories before at least once, know what’s coming, and have a built-in reservoir of affection for Michael, whom the American Office writers brilliantly softened just enough over the years to make me like him even after the events of “Scott’s Tots.” But lots of installments feature a moment where it’s just too much to endure watching Michael make himself and everyone around him uncomfortable.
Which brings us to David Brent: Life on the Road, a movie debuting Friday on Netflix in which Ricky Gervais reprises his lead role from the original U.K. version of The Office. (Gervais also wrote and directed it.) David was a rougher, less cuddly character than his American counterpart turned out to be, and while the original show is a masterpiece that’s among the most influential TV comedies of this century, it’s an even harder rewatch than the remake, because David’s that much more abrasive and unwittingly cruel than Michael, and the 12 regular episodes (the second season, especially) are essentially chronicling his painful downfall as the presence of documentary cameras unleash all of the fame-obsessed man’s worst personal and professional impulses.
All of which made the prospect of a 90-minute David solo movie, without Tim, Dawn, Gareth, or any of the other familiar faces from Wernham-Hogg — and, for that matter, without the services of Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, whose gift for comic architecture often compensated for the awkwardness of spending a half-hour at a time in David Brent’s company — more than a little frightening. And while it would be lovely to say that Gervais makes a triumphant return to the role that made him famous, and in the process not only eclipses most of his own recent work, but that of The Office‘s many spiritual descendants, the end result is as cringe-worthy as I’d feared.
We pick up with David about 15 years after the events of the original series. Whatever minor celebrity he gained from the show-within-the-show has long since vanished, but he’s never been able to let go of the belief that he is destined to be famous, and not only recruits a camera crew to begin following him again, but goes on an unpaid leave from his current sales job to make one final grab for the brass ring, mounting an expensive tour for his rock band, Foregone Conclusion, that he hopes will end in a record deal, even though he’s a stocky, sweaty man in his 50s whose bandmates can’t stand him, and whose skills on stage only look good in comparison to his songwriting, which leans heavily on broadly stereotypical cultural appropriation.
“You think it’s painful to watch? I have to stand on stage next to him,” suggests David’s rapper friend Dom (Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown), who goes on the tour and is much more well-received by both the audience and the other guys in the band.
This is a more pathetic David Brent, lacking the power he once held over the likes of Gareth and Keith, draining his savings and pension to fund this hopeless quest, and failing miserably at every turn. He’s older, more desperate, his jokes are staler than ever (he’s still saying “WHAZZUP??” when he enters rooms), and even the band’s feelings shift from scorn to pity after a while. Despite that, he’s not an appreciably more likable figure than he was 15 years ago, having forgotten whatever lessons he learned in the original series’ classic Christmas special about just being himself rather than doing schtick, just so he can learn them again here(*), and there’s no equivalent Tim or Dawn figure to lend fully-drawn humanity amidst all the scenes of David annoying everyone he meets. Here, David is meant to fill the space both he and Tim occupied in the original show, and it doesn’t work at all.
(*) Extras, the best of Gervais’ post-Office work, also had a tendency to repeat itself, though its own concluding Christmas special was so great, it was worth it despite it retreading ground the second season already covered.
The songs themselves are often funny, because they push David’s usual lack of good taste to absurd extremes, but they’re not enough to justify 90 minutes of David making everyone around him want to bleach their eyeballs to distract themselves from his latest clumsy failure.
“I didn’t really know whether to laugh or cry,” one of his bandmates suggests after another catastrophe. “There’s been quite a few moments like that, I think.”
There’s a scene late in the film where David appears on a local radio show to promote a Foregone Conclusion show, only to find that the DJ has no interest in letting him plug anything, and just wants to sneer at him as a long-forgotten nobody who’s been superseded by the hundreds upon thousands of reality TV personalities who arrived in the wake of the BBC2 documentary about Wernham Hogg. It’s primarily another humiliation in a movie full of them, but it also feels a bit like Gervais commenting on his own role in helping to shape modern comedy, and the way that the comedy establishment has left him behind in favor of his many imitators. (Gervais is far more rich and well-known now than he was when The Office aired, but also far less praised by critics and other comedians.)
“Are you hoping to change people’s opinions of you this time?” the DJ asks David.
The Office ended so perfectly — for David, for the other characters, and for the audience — with that Christmas special that there’s no reason to revisit the character in this kind of full-length fashion (as opposed to a handful of comedy shorts he’s done over the years) other than either nostalgia or Gervais’ desire to prove he’s still got it. Either way, I’d prefer to remember the David Brent who finally had the nerve to tell off Finchy than the version who kept making me plead for Tim, Dawn, Dwight, Stanley, or anyone else from the larger Office universe (even Andy Bernard!) to show up to take the focus away from him for a bit.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com