Over the last five years, British comic genius Ricky Gervais has built quite the cinematic resume. (We'll, uh, overlook the Night at the Museum series.) As if cementing his pop cultural legacy with The Office and Extras was not enough, Gervais and, to a lesser extent, his creative partner Stephen Merchant, have seized their opportunity to make a handful of idiosyncratic, startlingly thoughtful comedies. Last year's The Invention of Lying, for example, was perhaps the boldest examination of the role religion and belief plays in human lives Hollywood has ever mustered.
Given the pair's track record, together and apart, leading up to Gervais and Merchant's first, official feature film, Cemetery Junction, expectations were understandably high. So, when the film came and went with relatively little fanfare earlier this year, an unsettled feeling began to rise: Could Gervais and Merchant have finally stumbled in their near-flawless run of smart, funny projects? Sadly, the answer is a resounding yes. Cemetery Junction is not a horrible, claw-your-eyes-out bad film by any means, but it's also the weakest effort to date by this pair.
Set in rural England in the early '70s (1973, to be precise), Cemetery Junction unfolds as a pretty standard coming-of-age drama tinged with a few comedic elements. Balancing pathos with pithiness surprisingly eludes Gervais and Merchant, who prefer to lean on well-worn tropes and cliched plot devices, rather than spruce up a genre in desperate need of an overhaul. Christian Cooke stars as Freddie Taylor, a fresh-faced twenty-something living in Cemetery Junction who yearns to avoid the blue-collar life lived by his work-a-day father (Gervais).
Freddie makes a bid to become an insurance salesman, falling under the spell of self-made titan Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) and his obsequious right-hand man Mike Ramsay (Matthew Goode). Freddie's pals, Snork (Jack Doolan) and the combative Bruce (Tom Hughes), can't comprehend why Freddy would chase a life spent in suits, stuffy mansions and expensive cars, but neither can they begrudge him an opportunity to make something of himself. Complications ensue, as they always do, when Freddie reconnects with long-lost crush Julie Kendrick (Felicity Jones). His feelings towards her suddenly cause him to question everything about his current path and what the future may hold.
The cast acquits themselves well, the soundtrack is rife with vintage gems (including a rarely used Led Zeppelin track) and Gervais and Merchant make a few pointed observations about the friction between the classes and the ambivalence of youth, echoing such British staples as The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It's wise about the need to extricate yourself from a dead-end situation, even it means leaving behind your family and friends.
Yet, Cemetery Junction doesn't connect on the emotional level Gervais and Merchant are clearly trying to hit. Too much of this -- the insolent pranks, the teary confrontation with parents, the secret love -- pops up in every other young-man-coming-into-his-own drama and here, it just feels stale. That's surprising, coming from Gervais and Merchant, who've excelled at taking moribund idioms, such as the sitcom, and injecting into them a pronounced vitality. Cemetery Junction just seems dead on arrival, a lovingly made tribute to the men's upbringing, but not enough of a movie to really hold interest. Here's hoping their next cinematic collaboration has a bit more life in it.
Cemetery Junction arrives on DVD with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Bathed in golden light and smeared with just a bit of grit, the image nevertheless looks clean, clear and sharp. There are no readily apparent visual defects, befitting a recently filmed production, and Remi Adefarasin's cinematography sparkles throughout the film.
The English, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack matches the visuals, in terms of clarity and crispness. The vintage pop songs -- T Rex, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, etc. -- burst to life yet don't overwhelm the dialogue, which is heard clearly and free of distortion. French and Thai DD 5.1 tracks are included, as are optional English, French, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles.
Up first on this relatively full disc, a pair of commentaries: Gervais and Merchant sit for a track, as do the three lead actors, Cooke, Hughes and Doolan. The directors' commentary is as wry and witty as the film is leaden, suggesting period filmmaking is not their forte. Still, they sprinkle tidbits about the making of the film throughout, along with personal reminisces. The trio of actors, all of whom are unknown Stateside, spend much of their jovial track marveling at working with the star directing team and relaying behind-the-scenes info as well.
Ten deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are included, playable individually or together for an aggregate of 13 minutes, 47 seconds. A 13 minute, 43 second blooper reel (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is also included, along with a pair of featurettes. "The Directors: A Conversation with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant" is presented in anamorphic widescreen, runs 15 minutes, eight seconds and covers similar territory to their commentary track. Likewise, the 10 minute, 15 second "The Lads Look Back: The Stars Discuss Cemetery Junction" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) finds the trio of actors -- Cooke, Hughes and Doolan -- holding forth about their experiences, only occasionally overlapping with their commentary track.
Over the last five years, British comic genius Ricky Gervais has built quite the cinematic resume. As if cementing his pop cultural legacy with The Office and Extras was not enough, Gervais and, to a lesser extent, his creative partner Stephen Merchant, have seized their opportunity to make a handful of idiosyncratic, startlingly thoughtful comedies. Cemetery Junction is not one of those, unfortunately. A grab bag of coming-of-age cliches undermines the able cast, just as Gervais and Merchant's seeming sentimentality undoes any hints of fresh thinking in this well-worn genre. Rent it.