After the ingenious ideas and uneven execution of “The Invention of Lying,” Ricky Gervais (writing and directing with longtime partner Stephen Merchant) retreats back to a more basic narrative for “Cemetery Junction” — so basic, in fact, that their nostalgic coming-of-age dramedy all but drowns in cliches. It’s a strange hybrid of a film, boasting loudmouth boorishness instead of wit, and fortune-cookie schmaltz instead of heart, and despite above-average acting, it seems destined for marginal homevid after being dumped on a single screen in Glendale, Calif. Sony release had a modest spring run in the U.K.
Taking place in the titular lower-class Reading ‘burb during the summer of 1973, the film is not short on period-appropriate flavor and evocative local details. What it is short on, however, is a compelling throughline for its three twentysomething characters, all listless local kids with pungent vocabularies and less-than-sterling ambitions.
Bruce (Tom Hughes) is a leather-jacketed Richard Ashcroft lookalike with a violent streak and a dysfunctional home; Snork (Jack Doolan) is pudgy and malaprop-prone, ignoring the sweet girl at the local diner as he fruitlessly pursues hotties in pubs; and Freddie (Christian Cooke), protagonist by default, aspires to upper-middle-class respectability, taking a job as a life insurance salesman and listening to classical music in an attempt to better himself.
Freddie’s job brings him under the questionable tutelage of the insurance company’s menacing chairman (Ralph Fiennes) and oily second-in-command (Matthew Goode, who might as well have worn a black hat and a handlebar mustache). It also reintroduces him to his childhood crush, Julie (Felicity Jones), a free-spirited dreamer who is the chairman’s daughter and, rather inexplicably, the second-in-command’s fiance.
These various plot strands all resolve themselves tidily over the course of the film, but due to the rigidity of the formulas by which they’re written, there’s close to zero narrative momentum. Important life events seem to merely happen to these boys while they’re busy drinking and fighting away their time, and these events arrive in such laughably hackneyed forms (fateful trains that need to be caught; sudden revelations that Change Everything; musical performances in which the schlub becomes a star and the uptight crowd slowly starts clapping in time) that they’re hard to take seriously.
Gervais appears periodically as Freddie’s slovenly father, and he manages to fleetingly evoke the distinctive theater of cruelty he and Merchant honed so brilliantly on “The Office” and “Extras.” The problem is that these sequences — in which people say uncomfortable, pigheaded things — are wildly at odds with the film’s sledgehammer moralizing and trite truisms. When the phrase “Throw your heart out in front of you, then run to catch it” is spoken with a completely straight face (twice!), the nasty cracks about gays and starving Ethiopians sandwiched in between just come across as off-putting and mean.
Incidental dialogue from the film’s barroom banter does sometimes ring true, however, and the cast is skillful all around; Hughes and Jones are both standouts, and Emily Watson has an effective small part as a quietly rebellious housewife. Remi Adefarasin’s photography is smart and lively, and the production design is conscientious in evoking the early-’70s setting.