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13 April 2010updated 14 Sep 2021 4:01pm

Gilbey on Film: Gervais’s kryptonite vs lo-fi “Mumblecore“

Ricky Gervais's silver screen efforts are no match for Andrew Bujalski's understated charm.

By Ryan Gilbey

As Kryptonite is to Superman, so cinema, it would seem, is to Ricky Gervais. There are many things that make him an exemplary comic talent on television — the forensic self-awareness, the schlubby persona spiked with unwarranted arrogance, the gift for timing which tells him just when to milk a gag and when to cut-and-run. And those are just as an actor and writer.

Directing The Office and Extras (with his writing partner, Stephen Merchant), Gervais seemed to rejoice in the material’s distinctiveness — you could feel he knew how good the material was, and how he had dedicated himself faithfully to preserving its idiosyncrasies. All these fresh qualities curdle inexplicably on contact with cinema.

Watching the films that Gervais has co-directed — first The Invention of Lying and now Cemetery Junction, which reunites him behind the camera with Merchant — you get the sensation of performance anxiety, a desperation to reprise the alchemy he created on TV. But how can you repeat originality?

Cemetery Junction, the story of three friends kicking around early-1970s Reading, aspires to reproduce the tenor of US coming-of-age films in a parochial UK setting. Infused as it is with the tang of 1960s British filmmaking — there are visual nods to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the ending is an optimist’s rewrite of Billy Liar — the film tries to insinuate itself into two cinematic traditions. But I wonder what it brings to the party, apart from a change in iconography (the heroes hang around a scuzzy railway café rather than a diner; there are Ford Capris instead of Buicks) and an exaggerated ear for profanity (the big comic set-piece hinges on some very public swearing).

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Everything in the movie is soul-crushingly familiar, from the dynamic of the central characters (the sensitive one, the emotionally-wounded yob, the overweight buffoon) to the various types they encounter (bad men who neglect their wives and girlfriends, or casual racists against whom the heroes can valiantly define themselves). It’s embarrassing how by-the-numbers the film is. If you don’t spot at least three of the big emotional confrontations in Cemetery Junction an hour before they roll around, then chances are you went to the bathroom when the trailers were on, then wandered into Clash of the Titans by mistake.

The film is scuppered ultimately by the clash between the contrasting traditions to which it pays homage. There was nothing affectionate about the kitchen-sink movement: it was striving to reflect a reality that had hitherto been nudged off the screen, the page or the stage. That’s incompatible with the nostalgic bent of the American movies that have influenced Cemetery JunctionAmerican Graffiti, Diner, The Flamingo Kid, all of which were period pieces made some time after the eras they depicted. Combine the two and you get the film equivalent of mixing your drinks, or starting a band called Oasis.

Cemetery Junction would have looked square in any week, but viewed alongside Beeswax, the unclassifiable new picture from the Boston-born director Andrew Bujalski, it feels particularly stunted. British audiences were lucky enough to get a double-dose of Bujalski in 2007, when his first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, opened in quick succession.

The writer-director (and sometime actor) was heralded as the figurehead of the “Mumblecore” movement, which is usually to be found in the same sentence as words like “lo-fi”, “low-budget” and “improvisation”. (There, see?) I had assumed that the “mumble” part of that umbrella term referred to the dialogue delivery, which is conversational rather than performance-oriented, but it could apply equally to the shape of the films themselves.

When you’re watching Beeswax, it’s impossible to pick up on where the movie is heading. While Gervais and Merchant signpost every kink in the plot of Cemetery Junction, and even tell us which characters merit our sympathies, Bujalski goes for a more organic rhythm that’s close in spirit to the best work of Eric Rohmer or Richard Linklater. (The picture is set in Linklater’s home town of Austin, Texas.)

A week after seeing Beeswax, I’m still not sure how I feel about the twentysomethings who populate the film. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), who co-manages a vintage clothing store, can be an ice queen, and there’s something a shade too wacky about her pink-streaked hair. But her unreadable face makes the most innocent close-up feel complicated, while her relationship with her twin sister, Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), is a delight. (The improvised photo-shoot on which the siblings embark is a charmingly loose-limbed set-piece.)

And what of Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who’s studying for the Bar, and offers to help his old flame Jeannie in a legal dispute she’s having with her business partner? What’s his game? He’s a charmer and a straight-faced clown — his response to Lauren’s announcement that her first boyfriend just died could be the comic highlight of the year — but then there’s that mini-tantrum he has in the car…

This is the essence of Bujalski: his films percolate through you. It can be months before you really know what to make of them. Still, I can say for sure I got a huge buzz out of Beeswax.