Ricky Gervais’ eternally hopeless sales rep David Brent is back, older if not wiser, and he’s determined to have another bash at rock superstardom. In “David Brent: Life on the Road,” the first cinematic outing for the British comedy icon initially established in beloved BBC TV mockumentary “The Office,” he’s hitching his wagon to infinitely cooler young talent Dom (Doc Brown), a rapper who is everything Brent is not: modest, quietly confident, and great with an audience. It’s a recipe for humor and conflict which, judging by the home-turf success of other recent theatrical transplants of U.K. sitcoms — namely this year’s “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” and “Dad’s Army” — should have no trouble connecting with the original show’s sizable fanbase.
In the 15 years since “The Office” first hit British television screens, the series has spawned seven international versions — including the U.S. behemoth that ran for nine seasons and deservedly made a star of Steve Carell. Until now, however, only the German version of the international franchise (not presented as an official adaptation until threatened with legal action) has attempted a big screen transition, with crowd-funded “Stromberg — Der Film” topping the German charts for a couple of weeks in 2014.
“David Brent: Life On The Road” should handily eclipse that effort, successfully returning the franchise to its roots in and around the industrial town of Slough, a short but palpable distance west of London. As in the series, location selection and camerawork contribute significantly to the evocation of a particular kind of parochial Britishness. We’re not in the world of Merchant-Ivory period drama or glossy metropolitan rom-com: Instead, this is a world of motorway service stations, Costa coffee outlets and inadequate sliproads feeding backed-up dual carriageways.
Gervais has stated that this is “not an ‘Office’ film”, and insofar as none of his Wernham-Hogg paper-supplier colleagues are involved, it isn’t. Neither does it bother to slavishly resurrect every possible fan-service element in the way that the aforementioned “Absolutely Fabulous” spinoff attempted so relentlessly. However, the film’s thematic preoccupations are, naturally, similar to those of the source: relative notions of success, inadequacy, social hierarchy and desperation. The laudable side of Brent — his willingness to try and probably fail — is brought to the fore with a little more focus, as is the nastier element of some of his most disdainful co-workers, who hate him because, as a wounded Brent speculates, “they’re reps who like being reps and I’m a rep who wants to be something else.” Well, yes, but also because he’s a jerk. It’s one of those moments where you can feel Gervais speaking through his creation, the same version of the star that tweets about his critics being jealous.
While it is, of course, Gervais’ show, casting directors should take note of Tom Bennett as hapless Brent acolyte Nigel — hilariously building on his recent, show-stealing turn in Whit Stillman’s acid Jane Austen romp “Love & Friendship.” Nigel is not intended as a replacement for Mackenzie Crook’s inimitably strange assistant (to the) regional manager Gareth Keenan, though he fulfils a similar function narratively. Rather, he’s a sweet-natured doofus who reminds us that Brent’s brand of “Bant and Dec” idiocy will always have utterly sincere adherents. U.K. comedy writer/performer Tom Basden is also good value as a sort of latter-day Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman): a basically decent man exasperated to the point of occasional viciousness by Brent’s cluelessness.
A late third-act turn into sentimental territory, in which the original show’s misanthropy is sugared up, may feel artificial to viewers drawn to the series’ persistent despairing streak; still, it makes a certain sense given that the film would otherwise entirely lack an emotional arc. This attempt to impart a sense of hope as the film closes may feel tacked-on, but is understandable: Closer to home, the film’s theatrical appeal probably depends on its position in the current market as a nostalgic alternative to a relentlessly bleak news agenda. International viewers keen for an access-all-areas pass to some of the most cringeworthy gigs since Spinal Tap were billed below a puppet show can thank Netflix for their fix of “Brentertainment”: the streaming giant, who also backed Gervais’s war correspondent comedy “Special Correspondents,” has scooped the film’s North American and international distribution rights.