Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the team behind the BBC series The Office and Extras, have made their first big screen collaboration with Cemetery Junction. Don’t look to this film, newly available on DVD, for the uncomfortable, squirm-inducing humor of their television efforts. Gervais and Merchant, who co-scripted and co-directed, opted for a rather conventional approach to this coming of age tale. That’s not to say the film isn’t worth a look though, as there are numerous subtle pleasures throughout. Set in 1973 and loaded with pop hits of the period, its 95 minutes pass without wearing out their welcome. But the movie never truly distinguishes itself from similar nostalgia trips.
Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) is a young man desperate to avoid following in his father’s footsteps. Rather than spend his life in the small English town of Cemetery Junction working in a factory, Freddie longs for a fulfilling career. Much to the dismay of his ne’er do well friends, he takes a job selling life insurance policies door to door. Freddie wears a suit to work now, which doesn’t sit well with his his blue collar father (Ricky Gervais). The head of the insurance company, Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), seems skeptical of Freddie’s salesmanship abilities. He’s no Mike Ramsey (Matthew Goode), Mr. Kendrick’s prized employee and future son-in-law. Mike is engaged to Julie (Felicity Jones), who was a school acquaintance of Freddie’s. Freddie had stronger feelings for Julie in those days, feelings that reawaken upon seeing her again.
The ramshackle plot unfolds fairly predictably. Freddie slowly realizes that his job selling insurance isn’t likely to be any more rewarding than factory life. His friends don’t share his sense of ambition. One of his buddies, Bruce (Tom Hughes), fits the “rebel without a cause” stereotype. Bruce comes from a broken home, blaming his alcoholic father for his mother’s abandonment. Freddie’s other friend, Snork (Jack Doolan), is the overweight “nerd” character that seems a requirement of nostalgia-based coming of age films. Getting drunk, chasing girls, and generally stirring up trouble no longer hold any appeal for Freddie. His friends don’t seem quite ready to move on yet. The only girl Freddie does seem interested in pursuing is the one he can’t have: Julie, an aspiring photographer. Freddie is sensitive enough to see that her fiance Mike is a boorish chauvinist, but struggles to communicate to her that life as a housewife won’t likely be what she wants.
Almost everything about Cemetery Junction has been done before in countless films, a fact acknowledged by Gervais and Merchant in their commentary. They explain that their intent was not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to put their own stamp on shop-worn material. Unfortunately, I don’t think they quite succeeded. There are some laughs, but they are far and few between. More distressingly, Freddie isn’t all that likeable or relatable. For this type of story to really work, the main character needs to connect with the audience on an emotional level. Christian Cooke’s performance lacks any spark of originality. He plays Freddie as an earnest, mild mannered young man who doesn’t seem particularly driven. I didn’t care about his plight, which really sunk my connection with the film as a whole. Tom Hughes makes a far stronger impression as the rebel Bruce. The best scene in the entire movie is when Bruce is confronted, in a jail cell, by the police sergeant. Sergeant Davies (Steve Speirs) is a friend of Bruce’s father and finally reaches the troubled young man with some genuine tough love.
The cast includes some well known actors in addition to the relative newcomers playing the younger characters. Ralph Fiennes makes a lasting impression as the severe, pompous director of the insurance company. He’s so full of himself, at one point he explains to Freddie that his family portrait will appreciate in value due to the artist’s recent death. Emily Watson plays his long-suffering wife, Mrs. Kendrick. Watson rises above her underwritten role to convey the pain of a wife reduced to being her husband’s servant. Ricky Gervais steps in front of the camera for a number of scenes in order to play Freddie’s father. Striving for a sort of British Archie Bunker equivalent, he seems badly miscast. Gervais carries with him a certain refined wit that simply doesn’t convey the ignorance needed to make this stock character succeed.
The DVD includes a number of worthwhile extras. Gervais and Merchant contribute a low key commentary track, often becoming rather defensive of their humble effort. As a nice touch, the commentary track is subtitled in its entirety and can be read while the movie plays rather than listened to. A second commentary track features the trio of male leads, Cooke, Hughes, and Doolan. A selection of deleted scenes contains a few interesting bits, while the blooper reel has more laughs than the movie itself. A pair of featurettes, one with the directors and the other with the actors, round out an uncommonly strong roster of supplements.
While the description on the DVD case tries to make the case for Cemetery Junction as a hilarious comedy, I found that to be far from the truth. This is ultimately a forgettable film that boasts a few very modest virtues. Fans of the Gervais/Merchant team, or of Gervais’ solo film work such as The Invention of Lying, will likely be disappointed to find that this one has little in common with the team’s earlier work. It would be unfair to expect all their product to be of a similar style, but if they want to vary the formula the end result should aim for equal value. Cemetery Junction plays things far too safe.