It has been thirteen years since The Office aired, and the intricate comic mechanisms that make Brent one of the most subtle and hilarious characters of all time, are back, and tuned to a perfect pitch of nail-biting pain. And the premise, in which Brent tries to revive his dreams of being a rock-star as the singer-songwriter of the band Forgone Conclusion, with an expensive one-off tour contained entirely within the Berkshire area, is a ripe source of laughs.
The elements of his failure are painfully visible to us and are reminiscent of the series: the tiny and indifferent audience, the grotty venue, and the faces, ossified into awkwardness, of his session musicians and rapper companion Dom Johnson (Doc Brown), who is there only to boost his multicultural credentials. But this is not to accuse the film of rehashing a classic sitcom. Brent is back in largely the same form, but perhaps with a touch more sympathy and pathos than we have seen before.
Brent seems to have deflated since his golden years as regional manager at Wernham Hogg. There he was boss, a fantastic social failure in almost every way, yet still obsequiously put up with by his colleagues. Positions of power can sometimes blind people to their faults, and the film perhaps shows a different side to the Brent story, one where power is taken away, where people don’t have to put up with him, and one which has (it seems absurd to say) a bit more…self awareness?
Now he is an older, sadder, and largely friendless sanitary products rep at Lavichem. Also, despite the optimism with which we left Brent in the Christmas specials, we hear he has had a few tragic set-backs in the intervening years: a nervous breakdown, weight gain, and even thoughts of suicide. This harrowing back-story is not cynically waved in our faces, but comes through the cracks of Brent’s smiles, faux confidence, and painfully weak attempts at humour.
Such is the brilliance of Gervais’ acting, that we never really have to have much in the way of ‘character development’ to learn more about Brent. He can squeeze tragic desperation into a whining groan, a new addition to the arsenal of Brent mannerisms, which sounds the way I imagine a corpse would, weaning out its last breath. The tragedy behind the mask is always written in his eyes, and the energetic glint that they once had in The Office has faded away as he comes to terms with his disappearing dreams. But the act still goes on, and provides plenty of funny and awkward moments while it lasts.
“And you know just where you’re heading / It’s equidistant ‘tween London and Reading / Oh Slough / My kind of town/ I don’t know how, anyone could put you down,” warbles Brent with rock-star conviction, as a comeback to the immortal ‘dissing’ of Slough by John Betjeman. After all, “The station’s just got a new floor / And the motorway runs by your door.” These lines, like in all of the songs, are hilarious for their banality, but also speak precisely and tragically about middle-class existential angst.
In a metaphorical way, Brent could have gone to London, but didn’t. He is caught in mediocrity, between acceptance of his lot on the one hand, and impossible dreams on the other. In the background to the lines about Slough, there are the great blues and folk singers, singing romantically about dusty American cities like Chicago. This is where Brent wants to be, he wants to be one of them, a folk hero, someone who people admire and talk about with fascination.
I am fully aware that it is easy to fall into pretentiousness when writing poetically about a comedy film, especially one about a sanitary products rep in Slough, but this is exactly the kind of response it creates. Gervais makes us laugh, but also makes us acutely aware of the tragedy of David Brent, and keeps the distinction upon a knife edge. There is a moment which impossibly creates tenderness out of Brent repeatedly using the n-word, for example. There are so many things that could go wrong with a spin-off of a much loved sitcom, and there have been many casualties in the past, but Gervais manages to steer the ship in the right direction and create something that is both funny and moving.
Dir: Ricky Gervais
Scr: Ricky Gervais
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith , Tom Basden, Andy Burrows, Stephen Clarke, Michael Clarke, Stuart Wilkinson, Jo Hartley, Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett, Andrew Brooke
Prd: Ricky Gervais, Charlie Hanson
DOP: Remi Adefarasin
Music: Ricky Gervais
Runtime: 96 minutes
Released in UK cinemas 19th August 2016