Cringe merchant: why Ricky Gervais just isn't funny on the big screen

David Brent: Life on the Road is great in the details, but lacks the dramatic range required by cinema.

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As Kryptonite is to Superman, so cinema is to Ricky Gervais: on contact with it, he loses what it is that makes him special. He has excelled in the areas of sitcom writing and stand-up comedy while never straying far from his persona (peevishly ignorant, forensically self-aware). He has even transformed the hosting of sycophantic awards ceremonies into a vicious blood sport. And yet success as a film-maker eludes him. The Invention of Lying might have been a timeless fable in the Groundhog Day mould, had it not failed to meet basic requirements such as comic precision and internal logic. Cemetery Junction was torn between two incompatible traditions – kitchen-sink realism and feel-good nostalgia. Gervais, who co-directed both films, seems to have been born without a cinematic sensibility. He loves movies, but he can’t make his own films work.

David Brent: Life on the Road, the first film released in cinemas for which he has a sole directing credit, has a headstart over his previous efforts. It’s a big-screen spin-off from his BBC2 series The Office, which used the mockumentary format pioneered by Woody Allen and Christopher Guest to expose the everyday torture, heartaches and tea breaks of life at a paper company in Slough, the Berkshire town damned for all time by John Betjeman. The emerging popularity of docusoaps only made the series feel more modern, though David Brent (played by Gervais), a schlub who believes himself wrongly to be both talented and popular, came from a sitcom tradition of trapped and deluded failures – Rigsby in Rising Damp, Harold in Steptoe and Son.

The intolerable cackle with which Brent always signals his jokes is more shrill and panicky in the film. The confidence he once had as a manager, however misplaced, has dwindled now that he is working as a salesman of sanitary towels. But he still has his dreams. With his pension plan cashed in, he heads out on a mini-tour with his rock band, Foregone Conclusion.

From the group’s name onwards, many of the details are piercingly right. A monochrome print on Brent’s wall shows the open highway, but its romanticism is undercut by the ironing board propped up beside it. When Brent appears on a cheesy radio show to plug his tour, the DJ lures him into taking part in a spurious on-air quiz, telling him at a moment of high tension: “You’re level with Todd Carty.” Such lines provide compelling evidence that Gervais at his finest is like a Poundland Alan Bennett.

Any film that is filled with dreadful rock lyrics is courting a comparison with This Is Spinal Tap from which it cannot hope to emerge victorious. Nevertheless, Brent’s songs are gloriously cack-handed. “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disabled” invites ­listeners to consider those who are “mental in the head/or mental in the legs”, and Brent’s parochial timidity is all there in a barnstormer that imagines driving “foot down to the floor/70 miles an hour, but no more”.

Given so much decent material, it is frustrating to report that Gervais has made little headway as a director. Most of his problems arise from form rather than content. Documentaries are usually shot on one camera – few crews would have the resources or the space to use more, and none worth its salt would risk the disruption caused by too much equipment. Yet Gervais has abandoned the single-camera purity of The Office in favour of shooting from as many as three or four angles at once. Flies on the wall should be discreet. This appears to have been shot using a swarm.

It is also a problem that Brent is described as a forgotten docusoap star, which makes it unlikely that any film crew would choose him to be the subject of a big-budget movie. (There are helicopter shots here and they don’t come cheap.)

The biggest let-down is the film’s impoverished dramatic range. Most of it consists of Brent behaving embarrassingly, followed by his colleagues making disparaging remarks about him to camera. Near the end, everyone undergoes a change of heart and they discover that they admire his perseverance after all, for no reason other than that the movie requires a surge of pathos. But in cinema characters need to have more in their favour than humiliation converted into pity at the eleventh hour. This sort of pimping for sympathy makes Chaplin’s Little Tramp look like Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge

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