Is Ricky Gervais going soft? The comedy answer to which would be: going? Have you seen the waist on the man? The other answer, of course, is: yes, on the basis on his latest film, he just might be.
Let me explain. Gervais has always been against over-the-top sentimentality. He's not nihilistic - after all, the success of The Office wasn't down to the jokes so much as the touching observations, the tender love affair between Tim and Dawn; we laughed at Brent, but Gervais and Stephen Merchant always made us feel for him too, made it clear that there's a person under the bravado.
The emotion was drip-fed, earned, shown mostly in nothing more than a despairing silence, and all the more satisfying for that.
But his latest film, Cemetery Junction - a coming-of-age tale from Gervais and Merchant, which focuses on three best friends and their dissatisfaction with their dead-end lives (Gervais himself only takes a supporting role) - marks a worrying trend.
In most ways, it's a great film. A touching drama, beautifully shot, effortlessly likeable... and uncomfortably close to Richard Curtis territory. Cemetery, Actually.
Each of the boys has a lesson to learn, and they learn it. There's a comedy friend with a comedy girlfriend. There's a likeable guy and a likeable girl, and the likeable girl is about to be married to a mean man, and a final scene with a train about to leave a platform...
In interviews, Gervais has said he considers Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment the template, saying recently in an otherwise cringingly awkward interview with The Times:
“In Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”
And you can see why it's a template in other ways too: The Apartment pulls off that most rare trick of being a biting satire that's also warm and heartfelt (something The Office managed too, along with The Simpsons in its pomp).
Yet while Cemetery Junction shares a number of superficial similarities, it has none of the rest of the sly wit and guile of The Apartment. It's just a simple story, well told, with the edges sanded off.
You can't help feel: really, is that all they're striving for now? Is that it, guys? Doing the same as everyone else, only doing it a little bit better?
And Cemetery Junction isn't alone - it comes after The Invention of Lying, another perfectly good film co-written by and starring Gervais, where he becomes the only man who can tell a lie.
It's a neat idea, and looks to be a great one as he inadvertently "invents" God, but again, what appears promising becomes unbearable by the end, with the final third lapsing into happy-clappy montages and got-the-girl sentimentality. Oh, and a wedding. A bloody wedding.
No doubt it'll bring them success. And the offers to make their own films will keep rolling in. They're a safe pair of hands. But you wonder: is that really the happy ever after they dreamed of?