David Brent: Life on the Road
A David Brent movie was never going to work because the character isn’t worthy of a movie to begin with. Why would a documentary crew want to revisit the guy? In making a Brent movie, Gervais has detached the character from his original premise. In the television show Brent was part of an ensemble, the core of which was , Gareth and Tim, backed up by Dawn, Lee and later ‘the Swindon lot’: the television show happened to find Brent at work there, the crew didn’t go to the paper-merchants because they’d heard of him. Half the point of The Office was Brent’s ridiculous behaviour, caused by him trying too hard to impress the documentary viewers while simultaneously trying too hard to get his staff to like him.
But Brent is not a bad guy, he’s actually a gentle character with no real malice. I saw him once described as ‘the boss from hell’ but the person who typed that possibly hadn’t seen the show. If they had they couldn’t have paid much attention. Brent is a properly realised character – he’s not a name given to an actor who’s paid to deliver the dialogue: he actually has an internal existence, he does things because of how he thinks. He doesn’t just do things ‘to be funny’.
His problems are several. Already mentioned, he wants too much to be liked; he is terrified of women and is awkward around them, especially those he considers attractive; and he is (slightly) detached from reality in the sense of not knowing what attempts at humour are appropriate in the – ahem! – ‘workplace’. Considered together, he appears to be suffering from a kind of arrested development. It’s this mild arrested development which is taken by Gervais for the movie and turned into a form a dementia, where Brent has literally lost his reason, if not his whole mind, but only when it suits the script.
The Office was a very safe comedy, it didn’t have any sort of dangerous ‘edge’. No minorities were offended in the making of the tv show. Only majorities had the piss taken out of them. Boring middle-management white-men and their weedy kiss-ass ‘team-leaders’ were the main butt of the jokes. Brent and Gareth were the two office idiots, and taking the piss out of white-men is perfectly acceptable.
The Politically Correct aspect to the TV show was sometimes painful to watch. I felt like I was being lectured by a know-it-all teacher. Consider the scene in which Brent is telling a stupid joke about ‘a black man’s cock’ and a chillaxed black man saunters over just as he’s about to get to the punchline, thus dropping Brent into yet another embarrassing situation because he can’t finish the joke. Gervais makes the black character so chillaxed that he’s not offended by the joke – but a white woman decides to be.
Do we need to have a white-woman – in a convenient close-up – ask why should it be only black people who are ‘offended’ by racism? It’s almost edgy; it’s one step away from stating that black people are not experts on racism just because they’re black – but Gervais doesn’t go there. He wants to lecture us, so has Jennifer, Brent’s boss, explain that jokes about large black cocks are based on racial stereotypes, and therefore very bad indeed. Did we not already know this? Brent didn’t because Gervais even has him offer the ‘it’s a compliment’ defence. He’s the middle-management white-man so obviously he’s clueless.
Wouldn’t the scene have been more interesting if the black guy had become ‘offended’ at a joke which wasn’t racist, and had to be lectured by ‘Jenny’ about how people who take offence at pretty much anything are a fucking menace to liberty?
I mean, if we’re going to have some social commentary disguised as fiction then why not give it some edge?
And Brent being unintentionally cruel in respect to ‘the disabled’ is actually very safe indeed. Even when he talks about ‘the wheelchair ones’ we know nobody is getting upset anywhere, because he’s not mocking the disabled. He’s just showing how stupid a man Brent is. The ‘more shocking’ Brent is, the safer he actually becomes because Brent only sounds as if he’s making fun of disabled people. We laugh at him, at how stupid he is. We can all take the piss out of the little manager-white-man.
In the television episodes Brent, at his most clueless, is only ever half a step away from reality. In the movie, however, he’s lost his mind on some things but seems quite sane on others so that one wonder if he’s playing at being sane – just acting that way to fit in with the office crowd – or whether his bouts of cluelessness are just a bit too convenient?
Would anyone who could hold down a job as a rep in a sales office really hire a tour bus he didn’t travel on, to take a backing band to venues and hotels so close together they all could have stayed at home and got the bus each morning? Brent can’t be that clueless, that deluded, but we’re meant to believe he is. Why has Brent lost his mind? What has happened to him?
And then there’s the songs.
They’re supposed to be awful and embarrassing, but they’re not really. They are amusing, but what stands out about them is that they are well-written, obviously by someone quite clever. It takes great skill to be that bad deliberately.
Gervais must know that people will know that, and will say to themselves ‘my isn’t he clever, he can write songs and sing and play, too!’ And yet to do it in a movie where he makes his most famous character partially fucking demented, and in doing so significantly less convincing, seems odd. Was the world aching to see more of Brent? Or was Gervais aching to show the world that, even though his eighties pop career didn’t take off, he was worthy of it because he’s a good songwriter?
The movie is amusing, but not that amusing. It seem more an exercise in ego.