We’re uncharacteristically late to this party. As reviewers at the Edinburgh Festival, we really didn’t have much opportunity to make it to the cinema during August, so we caught this just as it was ending its run at the local multiplex.
One thing is for sure. After the laughter-free zone that was Special Correspondents, and the misfires of Derek and Life Is Short, Ricky Gervais is knocking on the door of Last Chance Saloon. And most of the reviews we’ve seen so far have been decidedly hostile, so our expectations are low. So it’s heartening to report that Life On The Road isn’t half as bad as it’s been painted up to be; and while it might not be as funny as The Office, it’s still loaded with scenes of extreme pathos and toe-curling embarrassment in equal measure.
Brent is no longer a leader of men. These days he’s a lowly salesperson for cleaning product company, Lavichem, and is mostly despised and openly derided by his fellow workers. Worn down by the futility of his existence, he’s cashed in some pensions and is gambling it all on one last roll of the dice, putting together a new version of his old band, Foregone Conclusion and embarking on a mini tour of the back end of nowhere. Perhaps in a bid for credibility with younger audiences, he’s also roped in young rapper, Dom (Doc Brown) for the ride, but, like the other musicians caught up in the experience, Dom is embarrassed even to be seen onstage with the man who has sunk his life savings into this doomed enterprise.
Gervais has written some decent songs for this, sprightly tunes that are beautifully undermined by appallingly well-meant-but-insensitive lyrics – Native American is a particular delight. Certain parts of the story (when, for instance, Brent talks about the nervous breakdown he suffered after leaving Wernham Hogg) are skilfully handled, tugging at the heartstrings more than the giggle-muscles, while other moments are so embarrassing it’s hard to watch. It’s a narrow line, but Gervais treads the right side of it here. Brent’s racism, for example, is perfectly observed: a squirming, ill-informed attempt at political correctness that creates the very problems Brent is anxious to avoid. It’s a comedy of awkwardness, and it’s excruciating to watch.
It really does feel like Gervais has redeemed himself with this; it will be interesting to see where he goes next.