Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, perhaps the most influential comedy writers of the new millennium, have crafted two of the most mature, deeply felt, perfectly paced television comedies in the medium's history. When it comes to the cinema, however, they have a frustratingly childlike view: something about the size of a theatrical screen in relation to that of a television that makes them feel as if they must project something bigger and broader. They both said they wanted a movie to be seen in a theater, not as a DVD, but that ignores the massive shift in the moviegoing consciousness that began when VCR prices dropped in the 80s and has exploded with the advent of the affordable home theater.
That desire to live up to the grander size of the films that inspired them softens the numerable pleasures of Cemetery Junction and turns what could have been a masterful evocation of the duo's extremely natural, extremely cringeworthy style into a modest success that proves entertaining but frustratingly out-of-reach.
And yet, I liked it. Gervais and Merchant's television series were explorations of their fears, of being trapped in a dead-end life (The Office) and of selling out all integrity for a hint of fame (Extras and aspects of The Office). Cemetery Junction traces those fears to their roots, in Gervais' childhood home in a working-class section of Reading. There, the women grow up to be housewives, and the men follow their fathers to the factory.
Terrified of this endless cycle, Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) surreptitiously sneaks to the nicer side of Reading to apply for a job at a life insurance company run by Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), a man who grew up in the same area as Freddie but managed to fight his way up the ladder. Specifically, Freddie envies the man's wealth, and Mr. Kendrick looks grimly amused at the boy's pluck, a hint of flattery tempered by the suggestion that the man finally his deepest wish: to become a legend back home.
The rest of the film pits Freddie's attempts to step up to the first rung of the corporate ladder while his friends, Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Paul, aka Snork (Jack Doolan), try to prevent him from even climbing that high. They continue to drink all day, get into fights and, in Bruce's case, bed as many women as possible -- poor Snork just never can play his cards right with the ladies. Freddie's ambition is interpreted, somewhat correctly, as bourgeois affectation, and his buddies love to cut him down, asking why the jobs in Cemetery Junction aren't good enough for him.
If The Office launched cringe humor into the mainstream, Cemetery Junction dispense with the humor and keeps the discomfort. These characters have not yet lived enough to draw dark comedy from their lives, simply stewing in misery. Underneath Bruce's rakish self-confidence is a deep bitterness over being abandoned by his mother, which he blames on his dad for not "being a man" and killing the bloke who destroyed their family. Were Paul a twentysomething today and not 1973, he would certainly have been at Wernham Hogg or some company like it, desperately puffing out his flabby chest (complete with a tattoo of a bare-breasted vampire that looks as if it were drawn with a pencil) in a vain attempt to impress people who hate his jokes and everything else about him as well. Gervais and Merchant try too hard to give Paul all the David Brent-esque lines, but it is when he stops trying to be a jokester and actually acts serious that he is most unsettling.
Worst, and therefore best, of all is Mr. Kendrick, a rotted soul who vigorously pursued a way out of Cemetery Junction and now has nothing to enjoy. He traps his wife (Emily Watson) in their lavish prison, preventing her from following whatever dreams she may have had to ensure his dominance. At a trumped-up banquet the company holds each year, he can barely contain his contempt for others, and his half-hearted go at honoring a retiring employee who devoted his entire life to the company is one of the most savagely dark and heartbreaking moments in the Gervais-Merchant canon. Mike (Matthew Goode), the best salesman at the company and fiancé to the boss' daughter (Felicity Jones), follows in Kendrick's footsteps, conniving old pensioners out of their money and disregarding Julie's dreams of becoming a photographer. An early promo for the film featured Gervais with Merchant speaking directly to the audience with Fiennes between them. Naturally, the way they brought Fiennes into the conversation was through Schindler's List, asking "Lot of laughs making that film?" What's funny is that Fiennes essentially plays Kendrick as Amon Göth, ignoring that he's in a nostalgic, lightly comic drama.
The genius of Kendrick's incessant, endothermic attitude stands out even more when compared to some of the more misjudged elements of the film. Paul's one-liners are too offensive for their own sake, to the point that he becomes predictable and the filmmakers lose the element of surprise that made Brent's outbursts so wild that the laughter caught in the throat because you'd swallowed your tongue in shock. Back home, Freddie sits at the table with his family, including his dad (Gervais) and grandmother (Anne Reid), as the poor boy must endure the lazy stream of racism that trickles from his elders' mouths. It's certainly a true-to-life touch, but Gervais and Merch overplay their hand, turning what could have been a funny group into a tedious array of reactionary caricatures.
The entire movie is a tug-of-war inside each character between the desire to get as far away from Reading as possible and the awareness that wherever one goes, it will still be the same. One can see Julie's future in her mother -- Watson's eyes brilliantly convey a deep pain that she has learned to resist but has never gotten used to -- and Bruce's beleaguered father shares more with his son that Bruce knows. But it all feels so generic at times, livened only by fleeting moments, never even full scenes.
The manner in which the film can move from engaging to eye-rolling in an instant is best exemplified by that awful "winner's ball" Kendrick throws to make door-to-door insurance salesmen feel like major stockholders in a Fortune 500 company. Paul manages to get himself on-stage with the band to sing a rousing version of Slade's "Cum On Feel the Noize" that somehow wins over the conservative old businessmen and their wives in attendance. Then, to transition from this joyous break from reality, the film awkwardly slams back into squirm humor as Snork, high on the attention, relates an obscene joke he heard earlier. Gervais and Merchant have the ability to portray comedy from the abyss and to capture an optimistic sense of romance and joy. They've even combined the two, but that only works when they start in the darkness and gradually find their way to the light. Cemetery Junction wants to be light and gently anti-nostalgic, making its odd dips into cringe -- even the gags that work -- feel out of place.
The filmmakers said they based the idea of the film on the lyrics of the Bruce Springsteen song "Thunder Road," which goes a long way toward explaining the massive potential in the film and its shortcomings. Springsteen's songs, one of the purest rock songs ever written, captures an intangible through the power of suggestion: Cemetery Junction is too autobiographical, too narrowly defined, to have the same pull. Yet certain touches resonated with me, like the local police sergeant who has such a rapport with the local rascals that he'll enjoy a pint with them before they get so drunk he has to lock them up. Having convinced the BBC to let them direct their first project despite no prior experience, Gervais and Merchant have clearly grown visually since then, and the half-sepia, half-smoggy cinematography courtesy of Remi Adefarasin is both beautiful and compressing, finding a better mix between the appealing and the repellent than the writing. Overall, the sweetness of some of the performances and the occasional flashes of humor that won out barely won me over, but I found myself too often wishing the film had been less "Thunder Road" and more "Backstreets."