Cemetery Junction, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 95 mins, (15)
The Market, Ben Hopkins, 93 mins, (15)

No love lost in a smirking spoof that's just a sitcom writ large

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant spent two series of Extras scoffing at Hollywood clichés and sitcom banalities, and at the start of the first film they've written and directed together, Cemetery Junction, it appears that they're carrying on where Extras left off.

We open on an olde English village street straight from a chocolate tin: half-timbered shops, a bobby on the beat, Vaughan Williams on the soundtrack. We then cut to a factory where men in overalls hunch over their lathes. One is Gervais, putting on a serious face. Another is a chiselled male model who looks as if he's about to strip off for his Diet Coke break.

As you watch this Hovis-advert Britain, you're waiting for the smirking moment when Gervais and Merchant reveal that it's all a dream sequence. But soon you realise with a jolt that they actually mean it, and that the whole film is going to clang with the same ring of falsehood.

Cemetery Junction is set in a 1970s Reading where The Best Glam Rock Album In The World ... Ever! is always playing, where the clothes are all new and the vintage cars suspiciously shiny, and where the dialogue is a string of catchphrases and Significant Speeches: "Travel? No one from around here does that." Gervais and Merchant have taken Extras' spoof sitcom-within-a-sitcom and made it into a film.

Unlike the recognisable human beings who worked in The Office, Cemetery Junction features three friends in their early 20s, two of them unfeasibly handsome (Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes), and one of them unfeasibly stupid (Jack Doolan). Life for them is all about drinking, flirting and fighting on a Saturday night (guess the Elton John track), until Cooke gets a job selling life insurance, which means – to his friends' disgust – wearing a suit and showing some ambition. It also means working for Ralph Fiennes and his sidekick, Matthew Goode, both exquisitely vile. The good news for Cooke is that Fiennes' daughter is the winsome Felicity Jones. The bad news is that she's engaged to Goode.

Basically, it's the Tim/Dawn/Lee love triangle from The Office without any of the nuances or doubts about how it might be resolved. Ask yourself, who is Jones going to choose, the sensitive hunk who compliments her whenever he sees her, or the condescending slimeball who dismisses her plan to be a professional photographer as "just one of those silly phases women go through"? Considering how much affection Gervais and Merchant had for all of their characters, up to and including David Brent, it's dispiriting to see how contemptuous they are of everyone in Cemetery Junction who isn't the hero or heroine. The message is, you're a nice person as long as you're young, beautiful, and you hate your home town. Otherwise, you're no more than a grotesque mouthpiece for one of Gervais's trademark Jim-Davidson-plus-irony riffs on black, gay and disabled people. The best you can say is it might have made a decent sitcom.

Fear not, though. If you're in the market for a bittersweet British comedy with the warmth, pathos, authenticity, and jokes that Cemetery Junction lacks, then The Market is it. Written and directed by Ben Hopkins, it's a classic, post-Ealing caper about a good-hearted chancer who's hoping to make a quick killing ... except with one slight difference: it was shot in Turkey with a local cast and crew.

Set in the mid-1990s, it introduces a small-time black-market trader (Tayanc Ayaydin) who is asked to acquire some medicine for a provincial hospital. He reckons he might be able to make enough money on the side to set up his own mobile phone shop, but only if he relies on his marvellously grouchy uncle, and defies some gangsters who know what being a successful businessman really entails. A Turkish delight – or a British delight, depending on how you look at it.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber hopes for better luck with the star of America's The Office, Steve Carell, in Date Night

Also Showing: 18/04/2010

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