A film review by Craig J. Koban August 25, 2010

CEMETERY JUNCTION jjj
½ 

2010, no MPAA rating, 95 mins.

 

Christian Cooke: Freddie Taylor / Tom Hughes: Bruce / Jack Doolan: Snork / Ralph Fiennes: Kendrick / Matthew Goode: Mike Ramsay / Felicity Jones: Julie / Ricky Gervais: Freddie's dad / Emily Watson: Mrs. Kendrick 

 

Written and Directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

Ricky Gervais has very little to prove that he is one of the freshest, shrewdest, and most confident comedic minds working today.  Alongside his writer/director partner, Stephen Merchant, the pair crafted what I think is the funniest sitcom in TV history in the BBC OFFICE and later followed up that superlative effort with their knee-slappingly hilarious EXTRAS.  Gervais himself migrated to big screen comedies with terrific success: he starred in one of the most criminally overlooked comedies in 2008’s GHOST TOWN and proved that he belongs among the pantheon of great funnyman directors by co-writing and directing last year’s scathingly hilarious social/religious satire, THE INVENTION OF LYING.  

CEMETERY JUNCTION represents a Gervais/Merchant work of a decidedly different breed:  Whereas their past work highlighted their mastery of naturalistic, caustic comedy involving characters that tip-toed from social awkwardness to all-out painful humiliation, in CEMETERY JUNCTION the Brit duo goes more low key and dramatically sincere.  Those expecting a laugh-a-minute riotous farce will be in for supreme disappointment.

Gervais and Merchant offer up something slyer and more surprising: a frequently poignant, amusing, nostalgic, and intrinsically character centric coming-of-age drama set in the early 1970’s.  The film certainly is amusing, to be sure, but it's more touching and tender hearted than hysterical and it does an exceedingly good job of not only capturing the look and mood of its time period, but also with the character dynamics and themes.   If anything, the film is a testament to its makers not lazily going to the creative well for ideas: they’re genuinely trying something well against the grain of what they’re well known for, which is what makes CEMETERY JUNCTION a nice little surprise that defies expectations.

The film is certainly one of Gervais’ most personal and the title refers to its location.  It’s 1973 in Cemetery Junction (where Gervais was raised), the same kind of small, working class town that suffocates the spirits and minds of its young, aspiring dreamers the same way perhaps that Modesto, California did in AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  Gervais paints a backdrop for the story that, in many ways, echoes George Lucas’ 1973 film: both are about modest towns away from big ones that harbor the chance for dreams and fresh new beginnings for the twenty-something-residents that want to escape, but nonetheless feel obliged, via direct and indirect means, to stay behind.   

Much like Lucas’ youth characters, the personas of Gervais and Merchant’s film see the calling of a greater purpose: they desperately wish to escape the shackles of the mundane and painfully repetitive blue-collar lifestyles that typify their fathers’ existences.  There is a deep desire to go beyond the soul-crushing inanity of a 9-5 menial factory job that is indicative of the small town; these kids want to go well beyond their forefathers.  It’s the notion of “there’s got to be something better on the horizon” that motivates the eager minded and ambitious personas of CEMETERY JUNCTION, but, for better or worse, those lofty goals seem more akin to the affluent and educated and, as the film progresses, seem further and further from their grasps.  

The film follows the daily grind of three friends that spend most of their off-time joking, boozing, chasing girls, and getting in trouble with the law.  The boys in question are all melodramatic “types” that we have all seen a hundred times before, but they are written and played with more depth than we usually see.  Freddie Taylor (nicely underplayed by Christian Cooke) has grown up in the town of Cemetery Junction that is essentially known for two things: everyone goes to the same terrible school, Stonemeade, and, upon graduating from there, the only likely job prospect is working at the local factory.   That’s what Freddie’s father (Ricky Gervais, who is a cheeky and subversive riot as his bigoted and proud paternal figure, albeit in a small, background role) has been doing all of his life, but Freddie certainly does not have the inclination to follow his dad’s legacy into the trials and tribulations of being working class.  

Interestingly, the father can’t bring himself to see his son doing anything beyond what he feels is a destined path for him - factory life – and is generally non-supportive of Freddie for any other vocation choice he may be entertaining.  Yet, Freddie is determined to become something more than his father, so he lands a white collar job as an insurance salesman for Vigilant Life Assurance, a company that is owned and run by one of the very few Stonemeade grads that actually went on to fame and wealth, Mr. Kendrick (the cold and calculatingly unemotional Ralph Fiennes).  Kendrick sees in Freddie a lad that wants what he has and has a deeply rooted hatred for factory life, which they both see as demeaning.  Knowing that he can use Freddie’s desire as an asset, he decides to give him a chance selling insurance door-to-door. 

Freddie loses his bellbottom slacks and wide collared shirt for a more respectable suit and tie, which angers his father and more deeply perturbs his BFFs, the reckless and easy-to-piss-off Bruce (a devilishly spirited and charming Tom Hughes) and the portly, slobby, and simpleminded Snork (the very funny Jack Doolan).  Bruce and Snork see Freedie’s new career path as a threat to their very tight and close-knit friendship:  Bruce seems content to nightly escapades of binge drinking, skirt chasing, and trips to the local jail cell, and Freddie’s desire for decorum and self-improvement with his new job impedes that.  Bruce is the kind of kid that Freddie’s father understands: he knows his place in Cemetery Junction and acknowledges that he will not go any further than the steel mill in life.  This, obviously enough, causes friction between the young men because of their highly divergent paths. 

More friction comes, however, to Freddie, especially when he grows to see how difficult it is to sell insurance, not to mention how badly it has affected men that have been doing it for 40-plus years (there is a pathetically sad scene mid-way through where Freddie attends a yearly toast – headed by the self-congratulatory Kendrick – that pays tribute to his successful salesmen, but it feels more like a funeral for the beleaguered and world weary souls than a celebration).  Having conflicted feelings about his new job is one thing, but Freddie soon begins to re-establish an old crush for Julie (the lovely Felicity Jones, conveying a natural beauty, a youthful spontaneity, and intelligence), an old school friend that just – maybe a bit too conveniently – happens to be Kendrick’s daughter.  Julie, like Freddie, is a capriciously free-spirit that has dreams all of her own, but her engagement to one of Kendrick’s right hand men (played in a reptilian performance of soft spoken ooze by Matthew Goode) most likely means a dull and monotonous life as a homemaker.  Freddie soon has to make serious choices about not only his future with Kendrick’s firm, but also with finding a cohesive balance between his home life, his friends that he’s alienating, and the girl he’s slowly falling back in love with. 

CEMETERY JUNCTION is a film that merges fine writing, nice performances, an acute – but unobtrusive – eye for period detail, and uncomplicated and straightforward direction.  On a negative, the film follows the same path of just about all other coming-of-age stories that we have all seen before, but even though it utilizes familiar genre elements it’s how it uses them that makes the film rise above its conventions.   Gervais and Merchant’s sly and sophisticated writing – along with the thankless performances – helps to create characters that feel tangible and whose dilemmas and conflicts resonate deeply.  There is also an underlining honesty, sweetness and gentleness to the handling of the personas and their stories that’s refreshing (these are traits that embellished Gervais' past film comedies as well) and the way Gervais and Merchant blend laughs with pathos is refined.  There are some deeply funny bits in the film too (such as, during one dinner table discussion, when Gervais’ cantankerous father shockingly lashes out at Ethiopian famine victims on TV and another when he argues with his elderly mother as to whether the term “bullocks” or a "cat’s asshole" are the most offensive for the household), but the essence of CEMETERY JUNCTION is in telling the personal stories of its youth characters and, ultimately, how they come to grips with the notions that money and privilege are not the only keystones to positive self-actualization. 

The performances are all dependably decent: Cooke, Hughes, and Doolan all create a believable chemistry and sense of lifelong kinship between each other, which is contrasted nicely by the impenetrably austereness of Kendrick, who has let money and materialism shroud away all of his meaningful emotional connections (Fiennes is fantastic at making him a silver tongued and uncaring fiend despite his tailored and well mannered facade).  Matthew Goode as well is able to make his slick and venomously persuasive salesman figure equally lecherous.  The best performance in the film, though, is by Emily Watson as Kendrick’s suffering wife, who has lived a marriage of stifling servitude under her husband.  It's astounding how little Watson does here to convey volumes of hurt; her performance here is all in her sullen face.  She suggests a lifetime of deep regrets and resentment for her husband without actually verbalizing it.  She also occupies the most heartrending moment in the film when she pitifully reveals to her daughter the last time her spouse ever thanked her for anything.  You gain an immediate sense that this is a woman that had her dreams stomped on by the selfish male dominated world that she reluctantly finds herself within.

In the end, CEMETERY JUNCTION is ostensibly formula-centric (you just know that Freddie and the boss’ daughter will somehow hook up and shake the bonds of their respective small town existence), but not distractingly so and Gervais and Merchant are smart enough to not fall victim to hackneyed, dime-a-dozen clichés.   They impart a real warmth, merriment, and starry-eyed soul into the proceedings and create an emotional authenticity to the well-crafted material.  It thoroughly engages us with its contemplative and well-established themes and relatable characters.  Moreover, it shows that Gervais and Merchant can do more than just cheeky, bawdy, and insubordinate comedies of manners. 

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