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Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Gervais’

Through one of those obscure processes not accessible to the likes of you and me, it seems that the back end of August has been designated that time in the calendar when films based on British TV sitcoms get released – the hipper, edgier ones, at least, for films cashing in on cosy old favourites like Dad’s Army and Absolutely Fabulous are permitted to wander off into the world at any old time. If we’re honest, the revival in this particular form is most likely down to the wholly unexpected success of the movie version of The Inbetweeners five years ago, but a revival there definitely has been.

Not much like The Inbetweeners and rather more like 2013’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa comes the latest attempt at this sort of thing, David Brent: Life on the Road, written, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais. Gervais is insistent that this film is not ‘an Office movie’, despite the fact that it shares its central character with the BBC sitcom The Office (2001-3), the show which brought Gervais to stardom. Hmm, well. The thing about Alpha Papa was that it felt (to me at least) like a film that had missed its natural moment by a few years, and one in fact made solely because Coogan’s Hollywood career was showing signs of faltering and the actor was in need of a guaranteed hit. Is the same true of Gervais’ adventures in Hollywood? Hard to say, I suppose, but I don’t recall seeing him making a prominent appearance since Muppets Most Wanted.

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Anyway – The Office is so old now that it may in fact have started before I wrote my first internet film review, and was a deadpan parody of the then-ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall docu-soap genre. It focused primarily on David Brent (Gervais himself), the manager of a paper merchants in Slough. Brent almost instantly became an iconic comedy grotesque, a marginally competent manager afflicted with a wholly unwarranted belief in his ability as a great entertainer, and crippled by a pathological need to be liked by and popular with everyone around him.

Not quite the stuff of comfortable comedy, as you can probably imagine or recall. Watching Brent/Gervais crucify himself in the most cringeworthy manner imaginable worked in thirty-minute chunks, from the comfort of an armchair, but ninety minutes? In a cinema? Without the other, somewhat more sympathetic characters?

The conceit of the film is that Brent has once again been approached by a documentary crew, who want to make a ‘where are they now’ type film. However, Brent decides to turn this into a rockumentary about himself, and taking a break from his current job as a sales rep for cleaning products, where he is largely surrounded by people who pity and despise him, goes off on a tour of the length and breadth of the Slough area with a group of hired session musicians, who also pity and despise him. Brent seeks to establish himself as a rock star, fronting the band Foregone Conclusion, cashing in his pension to do so. Also along is Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), a genuinely talented young rapper who has somehow fallen into Brent’s orbit and is dragged along in a state of bemusement.

David Brent’s chances of realising his dream are not helped by the material he opts to present on his tour, for most of his set consists of well-intentioned but monumentally inappropriate songs dealing with topics such as a brief romance with a gypsy (sample lyric: ‘She said “Yes, the sex is free/But the heather’s a pound”‘), the plight of Native Americans (‘Don’t call us Indians/We’re more south Eurasians crossed with Siberians’) and the problems of disabled people (‘You might have to feed the worse ones through a straw’). The joke, of course, is that he is fundamentally well-meaning, but completely hopeless; the audience is intended to be laughing at him rather than with him throughout.

So, this is essentially a film about a rather desperate and pathetic man throwing away his life savings in pursuit of a ridiculous, impossible dream. Whose idea of a comedy is this? Well, I’m still not sure that ninety minutes of virtually undiluted Brent is really a good idea – at least in the TV show you had the bits with Gareth, Dawn and Tim to look forward to – especially when it’s not as if there aren’t other capable folk in the film who could have shared some of the load. I was particularly sorry not to see more of Brent’s useless publicist, played by Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk).

But, if the idea of sitting for an hour and a half in a whole-body clench peering at the screen through the gaps between your fingers doesn’t put you off, there is much to entertain and enjoy here. Some of the business is a bit predictable, as is the plot, but Ricky Gervais remains a clearly extremely smart guy who can take this kind of comedy of transgression and embarrassment as far as he possibly can. The songs are extremely funny (no sign of Free Love Freeway, surprisingly enough), as well as sometimes being rather catchy too (I was humming the chorus to Native American all the way home on the bus). In fact, one of the neatest bits of sleight-of-hand he pulls off is managing to make Brent’s stage performances ridiculous while still suggesting that Gervais himself might well have some talent as a musical performer. His talents as a writer-director and actor are surely in no doubt: he gives an impressively subtle performance, with a desperate, forlorn sadness creeping into his eyes even as Brent is grinning cheesily away.

(Apparently record companies are pursuing Gervais with a view to making him go on an actual tour in-character as Brent, singing these songs. I will be slightly surprised if this happens, not least because that would surely be missing the point, and run the risk of having them taken non-ironically by people who hold exactly the views Gervais is trying to satirise. But we’ll see.)

I’m still not sure it really qualifies as a comedy though, given how excruciatingly uncomfortable much of the film is to watch. If Gervais has any kind of message, it seems to be that society has got nastier and more vicious in the last fifteen years, and this is reflected in Brent’s treatment by the people around him. The really sad thing is how much of it rings true, as well. Given that this is the case, the film has to work very hard to come up with an ending that isn’t totally downbeat and offers the prospect of some kind of redemption and happiness for Brent without seeming totally contrived and improbable. It does so, but only just; you really have to cut the film a bit of slack here.

As I admit fairly frequently, not many modern comedies genuinely manage to get a laugh out of me, but David Brent: Life on the Road did so. Maybe this was partly because I still retain some affection for The Office, which struck many chords with me at the time (I have to work hard to keep my own Brentish tendencies under tight control), but I hope it’s also because this is a very clever, well-observed film made by someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. If this is Ricky Gervais’ last outing as David Brent, then he does the character justice, as well as hopefully reminding the world what a singular comic talent he possesses. I’m very certain this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather impressive in its own way.

 

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I don’t know, I’ve been feeling just a bit down recently what with everything that’s happening in the world, and while none of the films I’ve seen recently have been exactly out-and-out bad, none of them have actually been particularly cheery either. So it was a relief to watch a movie which was genuinely a tonic for the spirit, even if that tonic took a slightly peculiar form. I’m not sure what the fact that my spirits were lifted by a film featuring a big musical number about the Russian penal system performed by Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement and Tina Fey says about me, but it should certainly tell you that the Muppets have a new movie out, James Bobin’s Muppets Most Wanted.

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Picking up seconds after The Muppets finished, Most Wanted opens with a jaunty, charming, and deeply cynical number entitled ‘We’re doing a sequel’ (sample lyric: ‘There’s need to disguise/The studio considers us a viable franchise’), and so it (obviously) proves. Riding the wave of their rekindled success, Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest are persuaded to take on Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) as their new manager, and embark upon a tour of various easily-stereotyped European vacations.

However, is all exactly as it seems? Probably not, as the start of the tour coincides with the escape from a Russian gulag of Constantine, the world’s most evil frog and Kermit’s near-exact double (this requires, obviously, a dual performance from Kermit, which he delivers with his customary aplomb). Soon enough Constantine has taken Kermit’s place and set about repurposing the tour for his own nefarious ends, while the hapless guiding force of the Muppets troupe finds himself packed off to Siberia to serve the rest of Constantine’s sentence.

With neither Jason Segel nor Amy Allen coming back for this movie, the key human roles this time round are taken by Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey as the chief guard at the gulag, and Ty Burrell as outrageously stereotyped French detective Jean Pierre Napoleon. That said, this film is focused much more on the Muppet regulars themselves (Walter from The Muppets retains his high profile role, which the film inevitably makes a few knowing jokes about). That’s not a problem, obviously, because you do go to a Muppet movie because you want to spend time with the Muppets themselves – but the human performers do get some good, juicy material. There are also a staggering number of cameos, most of them lasting no more than a few seconds, featuring everyone from Lady Gaga to Christoph Waltz.

The new film is also less founded in nostalgia for the Muppets’ late 70s heyday, and possibly as a result I found it less emotionally engaging than its immediate forebear: it’s much more of a straightforward comedy. Does this make it a less completely satisfying experience? Perhaps so, but it’s still an extremely funny film. (I should point out that the only thing I was inclined to criticise The Muppets for, the lack of any credit for Jim Henson, is repeated here. The Disney corporation may be the legal owner of the Muppets these days, but they will always be Henson’s creations.)

There were a lot of young families at the screening of Muppets Most Wanted which I attended, but for all that a fairly perfunctory message about responsibility and friendship has been written into the plot, I think it would be a mistake to consider this a children’s film – there are a lot of brightly coloured fuzzy characters for the youth audience, of course, but just as crucial to the Muppet formula are the endless, knowing self-referentiality and off-the-wall humour. And there are some jokes here which only an adult audience, and a fairly sophisticated one, are going to get: a gag about a remake of The Seventh Seal featuring the Swedish Chef, and a reprise of the famous mirror routine from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Also, there’s a ridiculous running gag about European working practices which is smarter than the jokes in most adult-oriented comedies.

The script hangs together well, the jokes are good, the cast is excellent, and most of the songs are very funny as well. As I mentioned, it may not pack quite the same punch as the previous film when it comes to heart and soul, but even so in terms of wit, intelligence and a simple sense of fun Muppets Most Wanted puts most comedies to shame, no matter what audience they are made for. If they can keep up this standard of inventiveness and charm, the Muppets could outlive all of us.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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