When describing the differences between American and British comedy during an interview, British comic Stephen Fry made an analogy to Animal House (1978).
“There is a fellow playing folk music on a guitar and John Belushi picks up the guitar and destroys it,” Fry said. “The British comedian would want to play the folk singer. We want to play the failure.”
This sentiment is remarkably represented in David Brent: Life on the Road. A spin-off from the original British mockumentary The Office, this movie follows Brent (Ricky Gervais) as he attempts to make it big once more. Living in the shadow of the BBC Two “documentary” that introduced his name to the world, Brent looks to reinvent himself as a rock-star, heading the band “Foregone Conclusion.” Spending an inordinate amount of money to hire a band, rent a bus, and put on a tour, Brent hopes to sign a record deal and break into the spotlight. He realizes his dreams are plagued with hurdles and, as Brent is slow to learn, almost certainly unattainable.
This film is a slew of self-deprecation, failure, and sadness. The makers of this film take Fry’s notion of dark humor to a new level as Brent fails at every turn. The failures never let up as he loses more money, time, friends, and respect. The organization of documentary shots adopts a pitiful tone. Viewers often see Brent as he enthusiastically looks toward the next gig or says how much he is enjoying the whole experience only to have the next shot document a bandmate attesting to how much they hate him. For viewers unfamiliar with the British variety, it may seem dry if not altogether mean-spirited, but, if accustomed to the style, there is serious enjoyment to be found in the misery of others.
When not feeling for Brent, audiences are more likely to be laughing at him as the film is filled with cringeworthy moments as he sings as part of the band. Singing hits that touch on a myriad of social issues, viewers will not know whether to laugh or cry. “Native American” details the woes of the displaced peoples. “Don’t Cry It’s Christmas” details a terminally ill boy’s last hours waiting for Santa Claus. “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled” does as much as its title suggests. These are some of the most absurd moments in the film, especially given the amount of detail each song is given.
Gervais was quick to point out that this film was not an Office movie. Rather, it was a way to explore the inner-workings of a character he found so interesting. And that is what this film feels like: an unintrusive spin-off distanced from the original material about Brent and his faults in day-to-day life.
Despite these differences, the filming style is almost identical to that of both versions of The Office. The documentary style adds nicely to the deadpan, harsh, British style of humor as the camera is as unmoving and emotionless as the individuals in the film. For fans of the American series, this may serve as an interesting foray into the live of Brent (Michael Scott’s British counterpart) and possibly into the original series.
Because of the differences in styles of humor, some may write off the film as inaccessible—however, it offers glimpses into a different comedic outlook than what is traditionally seen in American comedy and comics. Certainly this is no This Is Spinal Tap (1984), but is a worthy entry into the cringe-worthy realms of great music mockumentaries.
If this film amounts to anything, it certainly captures the despair laced within British comedy as Fry further surmises.
“All the great British comedic heroes are people who want life to be better and on whom life craps from a terrible height.”
For Gervais and Brent, that height is terrible indeed.
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