With the hit sitcoms The Office and Extras, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant perfected the art of turning ordinary, awkward human interaction into painfully funny comedy, and they did it primarily by looking at familiar settings—the workplace, show business—and highlighting moments that are common in real life, but not so common on television. The problem with Gervais and Merchant’s feature film Cemetery Junction is that it does the opposite, drawing more from other movies than from direct experience. Which is a shame, because by all accounts, Cemetery Junction is a personal project for the writer-directors, based in part on their own memories of growing up in the ’70s. The movie follows three best friends—ambitious boy-next-door Christian Cooke, swaggering delinquent Tom Hughes, and dimwitted sweetheart Jack Doolan—as they knock around a small town in England, getting drunk, chasing skirts, and wondering if they’ll ever escape the drudgery of their parents’ lives. Cemetery Junction is rich in period detail, from the classic-rock soundtrack to the culture-lag that has provincial types still dressing like it’s 1955, and it has a burnished look that celebrates the past more than it looks back in anger.
But as Gervais and Merchant have acknowledged, Cemetery Junction is also their attempt to pay homage to their favorite stories of restless youth, which means a certain amount of cliché comes factory-installed. When Cooke bristles at the fustiness of his boss (Ralph Fiennes), or Fiennes’ daughter (Felicity Jones) wonders if her conservative dad will let her out to see the world, or Hughes gripes that his father is an impotent drunk, these are all scenes filmgoers have seen countless times, from ’50s rock movies to ’60s kitchen-sink dramas to ’80s John Hughes comedies. Gervais and Merchant then compound the outdated feel by digging up some dusty comedy relics, including jokes about the topless natives in National Geographic, and a gag about Cooke not knowing that escargot is snails.
As with a lot of recent Gervais projects, Cemetery Junction is admirably confident about its identity. It’s meant as an old-fashioned feel-good coming-of-age comedy, so it follows form, even at the cost of succumbing to predictability. And it does have flashes of Gervais and Merchant’s comic genius, particularly in any scene featuring Gervais as Cooke’s casually bigoted father, or any scene with David Earl as the growly voiced, lecherous proprietor of the boy’s favorite diner. But those moments—like the pungent sequences where Matthew Goode trains Cooke on how to be a good insurance salesman—are just sprinkles of flavor, when they should’ve been the whole dish.
Key features: Deleted scenes, a blooper reel, an hour of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and two commentary tracks—one with the three young stars, one with Gervais and Merchant. All the features are more earnest than funny, just like the movie.