Years ago when I was talking to Jon Favreau about “Made,” I brought up a scene that he shot in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles that serves as the lair of Peter Falk’s lowly kingpin. Favreau barely knew where I was referring to, and I would assume he had lived in Los Angeles since filming “Swingers.”
I mention this not to name drop, but because if you don’t live in Southern California, you might not understand what limbo has befallen “Cemetery Junction,” Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s first feature together in the wake of successful TV series like “The Office” and “Extras.” It will be released on DVD next week, but it was dumped first into the Glendale Exchange 10 for a weeklong release that pulled in all of six customers on Monday night and was only publicized by a mention on Movieline and a Ben Stiller tweet, surely the result of a contractual obligation that the film not go directly direct-to-DVD.
Usually, this treatment is only reserved for complete messes like Kevin Costner’s “The New Daughter” or Russell Crowe’s “Tenderness,” and frankly, “Cemetery Junction” didn’t look like it had the potential as a nostalgic coming-of-age story about three teens plotting an escape from their sleepy English steel town in 1973. Instead, it’s more accurately a victim of indifference, a film that shares the romanticism of the cinema that Gervais’ first directorial outing, “The Invention of Lying” (co-directed with Matt Robinson), had, yet completely different in its approach.
Whereas “The Invention of Lying” was engineered for Gervais and a crew of famous comic actors to deliver punchlines in a bright, reassuring ideal of a small town, “Cemetery Junction” operates in a fog, with Gervais and the film’s most notable names like Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson taking a backseat to the trio of anonymous teens crushed under oppression of a routine life: the ambitious Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke), the shaggy bad boy Bruce Pearson (Tom Hughes) and the ne’er do well comic relief Snook (Jack Doolan). The palette in “Junction” is drab (shot with as much style as possible by Remi Adefarasin) and the humor bone dry, where it exists.
But the movies are not the laughing matter for Gervais that one would think, once again eschewing the realism that he and Merchant so ruthlessly mined for laughs on television to fall back on sentimentality and cliché in film; if they were always ready to stab someone in the back for a gag on “The Office,” they’re only offering warm hugs here.
And for two-thirds of “Cemetery Junction,” the warmth of the familiar pushes past the predictability of the plot, which sees Freddie ditch his father’s line of work in the steel mill for a white collar job at Vigilant Life Assurance that comes with a boss he’s long admired (Ralph Fiennes), his daughter (Felicity Jones) for whom he holds a torch from childhood, and the promise of a life where his friends won’t pin him down and fart in his face. As the story broadens into subplots involving Bruce’s penchant for picking fights (unsurprisingly stemming from unresolved issues with his father) and Snook’s desire to become his own man, Gervais and Merchant write themselves into corners that only big unwieldy speeches can fix, which sends the film into a tailspin that will please only the least demanding of audiences.
This couldn’t have been the film that its distributor had in mind when they greenlit “Cemetery Junction” and shot a teaser with Gervais and Merchant ribbing Fiennes about “Schnidler’s List.” Indeed, any funny stuff the film has involves Fiennes’ endless reservoir of vitriol, whether he’s admiring his family portrait as fine art that’s likely “gone up in value” since its painter died, or delivering a cold-blooded retirement speech for one of his longest-serving employees that ends with the explanation of buying a more expensive gift since the cheaper one was out of stock. When Fiennes is offscreen, the film feels decidedly less dangerous and save for Gervais and Merchant, who both put in brief appearances that feel a little out of place, “Cemetery Junction” works out of expectation rather than anticipation.
Ironically, the embrace of nostalgia that makes “Cemetery Junction” interesting coming from Gervais and Merchant is what would make it potentially unbearable from any other filmmaker — the duo responsible for reinventing the sitcom doesn’t have the interest to do the same for film, a medium that they clearly adore as demonstrated by the explosions of the era’s classic rock that fill the film’s soundtrack and the care that goes into their screen composition, though it doesn’t allow for the same build for characters or subtlety in story arcs. As filmmakers, Gervais and Merchant find a rhythm technically that makes the fact they never find the balance between humor and heart that they’ve achieved in the past even more of a disappointment. But “Cemetery Junction” isn’t an embarrassment, it’s just a reminder that these guys are capable of better.
“Cemetery Junction” is now open in Los Angeles; it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 17th.