This is devastating. Cemetery Junction is written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the brains (and heart) behind the peerless modern sitcoms The Office and Extras. Not only are they two of the funniest television shows of all time, but they also rank amongst the most touching and emotionally-astute ever made. Who among us didn’t shed a tear in the wonderful final moments of The Office Christmas Specials? That’s right, none of us. Cemetery Junction may elicit tears too … but not the good kind. Gervais and Merchant stumble spectacularly in their joint-feature-film debut (Gervais previously wrote and directed The Invention of Lying with Matthew Robinson, an anti-religion parable that is ironically overly-preachy). It’s not that Cemetery Junction is terrible; the cast are fine and the intentions are noble. But Gervais and Merchant’s previous projects mastered the tightrope walk between comic cruelty and earnest drama. With Cemetery Junction, they waver wildly, unveiling some of their ugliest jokes and most saccharine emotional moments to date.
It’s 1973 in Reading, and Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan) are longtime buddies on the cusp of adulthood. The brooding Bruce and inappropriate Snork are more than content with their aspiration-free life, but Freddie is tired of their evenings of debauchery at the pub; he’s eager to find a respectable career so as to avoid the working-class life of his father (Gervais). After accidentally running into his childhood sweetheart Julie (a wonderfully charming Felicity Jones), he scores a job with her straight-laced father Mr. Kendrick (a dryly funny Ralph Fiennes), selling life insurance beside her smarmy fiancé Mike Ramsey (Matthew Goode). It all seems promising to begin with, until Freddie’s true feelings for Julie begin to rise to the surface, and he realises that this might not quite be the life he had dreamed of.
There is a good-natured nostalgia to Cemetery Junction that, sadly, contributes to the film’s issues rather than outweighs them. Gervais similarly grew up in Reading with his working class family, and he clearly looks back fondly on his modest beginnings. You need only look at their depiction of the Kendrick family’s middle-class misery (mother Kendrick – played by Emily Watson – seems as emotionally-distraught as Alison Janney in American Beauty). This nostalgia mostly adds to the emotional falsity of the entire film. A subplot regarding Bruce’s contentious relationship with his alcoholic father is similarly insincere, and ends in the manner of a Kleenex ad. Surely this is the kind of half-hearted dramedy that Gervais and Merchant would mock mercilessly on their bestselling podcasts.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moments in which Cemetery Junction goes too far (or at least further than The Office and Extras) in the disparate areas of mean-humour and sentimentality. Perhaps it’s most evident in the character of Snork, who is described in the official plot synopsis as “a lovable loser”. They’re half right. He’s an unpleasant character, and the vessel through which Gervais and Merchant are able to expel their cruelest, most ignorant jokes. They’re not overly offensive, but they’re pretty unpleasant, and always unfunny. I suppose it’s a matter of extremes. For two writer/directors who are supposed experts in subtlety, Cemetery Junction suggests that they’ve lost their way. Hopefully it’s temporary.
Cemetery Junction arrives on DVD November 24, 2010.