Death of a Salesman
Ricky Gervais' new film is more of a horror movie than a comedy, less a chronicle of Life on the Road than a M25-confined retelling of the Book of Job (not that one, alas); an endurance test of humiliation and awkwardness and cheap unearned pathos. I watched huge swathes of it through my fingers, and left feeling deflated and sad. Tim and Dawn's kiss to Yazoo at the Christmas party this was not.
In making this toxic, miserable plea for cultural relevance, Gervais has jettisoned (or been abandoned by) everything that made the original Office good: no Tim, no Gareth, no Steven Merchant to check his worst impulses to shout a racial slur and smugly point out the air quotes around it. Brent in 2016 is a character unrecognisable from the winning, endearing buffoon of the original TV show: he was never previously so maladroit, so clueless around women, so short on redeeming features.
This is a thin caricature of a once fleshed-out character; the film limps its way through a plot similarly divorced from reality and stacked with implausibilities. Brent’s songs back in 2001 were believably, earnestly terrible; many of the ones here are ghastly one-note parodies that no one could conceivably write or bring themselves to sing. When he was on BBC2, Brent had risen to Regional Manager and had friends and people who liked him for obvious reasons; here we are expected to believe he is so graceless he has to pay his bandmates to have a drink with him. The slow-burn storytelling on TV was bittersweet and toughly real; here Gervais changes direction, unannounced, with about 20 minutes to go: those same bandmates now buy David a pint, his tormentor in the office is vanquished, he ends the film on an optimistic note, heading out for coffee with a woman plainly (inexplicably) besotted with him.
Why did Ricky Gervais make this film? Maybe to make some money, though he probably has enough. More likely it’s to try to claw back some cultural capital – his stock has never been lower. Ricky Gervais in 2016 is a joke. His awards ceremony shtick is gutless and increasingly toothless, his new content for Netflix has bombed. It's understandable that he should seek out a once-beloved character to try to address this; what he probably didn't realise is how much baggage he’s now bringing into the role. His time in the wilderness has hardened Gervais; his sense of humour has grown gnarled and knotted. The world hasn't grown tougher, as a character suggests at one point: it is Gervais himself who has grown more cruel.
The Ricky Gervais exposed in Life on the Road is an embittered person half-disguising his bitterness, employing irony like you might use a can of Febreeze to mask a particular noisome shit. He hates the human body, in all its fallibility and imperfection. Fat people are held up as inherently risible, incapable of controlling their disgusting impulses to further flesh out their hideous frames; a song about disabled people is breathtakingly tasteless. But it's OK, because Gervais himself is a little on the podgy side, and because he sings that song to a leg-mental in a wheelchair!
Nah, bro. When you do a “bit” about an Asian character Ho Lee Fuk, pull on your eyelids, and call forth your worst Mickey Rooney impression, you don't get an irony Hall Pass on the grounds that the joke is *on* the people who still do that, still think that’s acceptable “comedy”. You're being racist. When you say the word "n****r" three times in as many seconds then have a black character repeat it as a term of endearment, if your defence is that you're pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse in a UK-wide mainstream cinema release, you’re lying. A scene between Brent and someone in HR early in the film highlights the problem: he has, of course, been called in to answer for a joke he made about grabbing a woman’s breasts; clearly he is in the wrong; there are some meagre scraps of laughter to be had as he flounders to defend his indefensible actions. Really, though, the joke is on Gervais: he and Brent have become one and the same. In both cases, these are the infantile provocations of a man who has run out of interesting things to say.
This is not a question of free speech. I have no issue with the film being in cinemas, with Ricky Gervais having a platform to say what he wants; equally, if you want to watch a nominal comedy that plays more like Donald Trump directing Beckett, fill your boots. Humour willing to provoke plays a vital role in society: it’s important to push the envelope and slaughter sacred cows. But if you’re going to try, do it well; ask some interesting questions rather than saying something outrageous and chasing it with those expectant raised eyebrows and those knowing pursed lips and that stupid juvenile cackle. At every juncture, Life on the Road reaches for the obvious choice, for the bad choice: of course Brent now sells tampons (female biology – gross! Just kidding!). Of course Doc Brown’s character dresses up like a Native American Indian because he’s the closest Brent’s entourage has got to one (but he doesn’t go onstage! No harm no foul!). Of course Brent passes out midway through the tattooing of the word “Berkshire” on his arm, leaving him branded, permanently, as a “Berk” (reminder: this is the version of the joke they decided to go with for a film you are asked to pay money to watch in a cinema). Of course a storyline about Brent’s mental health is abandoned in favour of a throwaway line about Prozac’s tendency to cause weight gains and some cheap sight gags showing a shoddily photoshopped Brent, no longer acceptably shaped but instead (ha! ha! ha!) fat.
Life on the Road is a pointless film, lacking both purpose and acuity. The character arcs go nowhere; the humour doesn’t skirt the perilous boundary between art that is difficult and challenging and art that is simply offensive. It’s the M25 in celluloid form: a grim, static circle that gets you to an end destination wishing there was a viable alternative. Even more damaging, when it comes to the question of Gervais’ legacy, it makes you wonder if you ever should have taken that detour through Slough in the first place.