Love him or hate him, there is no middle ground on Ricky Gervais
"Which did you prefer, The US Office or The UK Office?"
It's a fair question, the answer to which will decide whether or not you'll enjoy David Brent: Life On The Road.
Full disclosure: this reviewer did not like The UK Office, and unsurprisingly did not like the recent movie spin-off. The US Office was much more my sense of humour, but that's not to say I'm completely anti-Gervais. There was lots of love for Extras and The Ricky Gervais Show, and a lot of his stand-up managed to keep the laughs coming.
But David Brent: Life On The Road was borderline intolerable. While many of the character's fans will relish in spending an hour and a half almost exclusively in his company, those who never warmed to the show in the first place will find that the few appealing aspects of the programme - Martin Freeman's 'Tim' and Lucy Davis' 'Dawn' for example - have been stripped away, and there's nobody left to root for.
And much like every movie-based-on-a-TV-show, it makes the same big-time mistake in taking the characters out of the scenario fans loved them in and moving them to a strange, foreign land. The Simpsons Movie relocated from Springfield to Alaska, Absolutely Fabulous ditched London for Cannes, and David Brent leaves Slough for... well, a small number of towns surrounding Slough.
From scene to scene, the character of Brent seems to swap mentalities, initially coming across as socially awkward or, from his completely dead-eyed description of some people he dislikes, his character is also fairly reminiscent of someone you'd read about in Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The simple definition of a sociopath - "a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour" - is reminiscent of Brent. So either way, we're potentially laughing at - not with, never with, at - someone who has some severe psychological and social issues.
Which isn't necessarily a problem; Fight Club, American Psycho, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Silver Lining's Playbook, Punch-Drunk Love, Little Miss Sunshine, The Skeleton Twins, Lars And The Real Girl, The Royal Tenenbaums, Inside Out and Adaptation all had us laughing along at characters with very obvious psychological and emotional problems. But, and we're finally getting here, it's also not really the point.
Gervais' constant career decline of late (those Night At The Museum movies, that terrible Netflix movie Special Correspondents, the fact nobody actually went to see Cemetery Junction), and returning to Brent does seem a little like the panicked move of a man who can see his career is flailing. He had previously stated he'd never bring back The Office, something he's semantically worked around in the promotional tour for this movie by saying "I said I'd never bring back The Office and I won't - this isn't that. This is David Brent now - what he's doing now."
Still, there is obviously some hunger for the return of Brent, which is where film critics find themselves at a bit of a fork in the road.
Fans of the show will go and see the movie no matter what the critics say, whereas non-fans might have looked at the reviews and may have been convinced to go if they had revealed Life On The Road to be one of the best comedies of the year. This, of course, isn't the case: the Rotten Tomatoes score is 64% and Metacritic is at 55%, all very middle of the road. Those are almost a testament to how critics have been playing it safe; more or less saying if you like The Office, you'll like this. If you don't, then you wont.
But this is where film critics should really be digging their heels in. People are reading your opinions, not your opinion of what you think other people's opinions might be. "This wasn't for me, but you might like it" isn't a review, it's a safety net against the show's fans.
Critics who were already fans of the show have no problem gushing over the project. A case in point is Robbie Collins's review for The Telegraph, where he said: "What’s in no short supply is the same mix of uproarious failure and sledgehammer pathos that Brent at his best was always all about".
And if fans of the show hit back with "Of course you gave it a bad review, you didn't like programme to begin with", well... Yeah. So what? Comedy is just about the most subjective genre of cinema there is. Nobody watched 12 Years A Slave or Schindler's List and thought "Hmmm, wasn't my kind of drama". What you find funny or scary is something individual to you, and the same goes from the film critics. Finding the critic who speaks to you is a bit like going through a series of first dates until you come across someone who shares your sensibilities, and just because someone doesn't share your opinion, doesn't mean they're automatically wrong.
Film critics who can't stand their ground and give an honest opinion are exactly the kind of folk who don't deserve that second date.