Cemetery Junction

17 April 2010

Barring the Christmas specials of their television works The Office and Extras, Cemetery Junction is the first feature-length film scripted and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Released April 14 in the UK, it tells the tale of three working class males, Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan) living in Reading, 1973. When Freddie takes a job as an insurance salesman, he reconnects with Julie (Felicity Jones), an old friend and daughter of Freddie's boss, Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes). Falling for Julie over the course of the film, Freddie becomes increasingly at odds with his new lifestyle.

The Reading of the narrative is that of Gervais' own youth. Though early scenes have a mechanical exposition to them, there's a lingering sincerity throughout. The film is full of amusing, interesting scenes. The strongest of these include that in which Freddie's close friend Bruce, a jack-the-lad factory worker, clashes with Freddie's conservative boss Kendrick, a scene in which we side with Bruce even though he himself might refute his own argument in humbler company. Scenes in which self-absorbed males, such as Julie's boyfriend Mike (Matthew Goode) and Kendrick treat women as their slaves largely ring true, even if they do have a certain cartoonish quality to them.

The film shows the same narrative patterns as Gervais's and Merchant's previous attempts at feature-length material: montages-to-music are used as a means of revealing passages in time, to basic effect.

It is also less subtle than their previous material. Though it remains fundamentally sensitive to social and historical forces – with a conscious effort to reconstruct the look and feel of 1970s Reading – it paints its humour in crude, broad strokes.

The casual ironic racism of Freddie's parents and grandmother comes immediately to mind. These scenes are painful to watch. It simply isn't enough to place a racist character somewhat incongruously into a narrative without accounting for such an outlook in more depth. There's no attempt on the writers' parts to explore the roots of racism, or to fully understand or explain it.

While I understand that might be an unreasonable request of a 90-minute film, especially one with a formulaic script that pulls no new punches, I'd counter by questioning why the racism is included at all. Whether we're in on the irony or not, the racial slurs are played out for laughs here, something made more obvious by the fact Gervais himself plays Freddie's father Len.

It's worth commenting on this because Gervais and Merchant are not bigots. Part of the frustration of Cemetery Junction is that its makers presume their audiences are in on the joke. But such confidence is naïve. Firstly, if they are in on the joke, that doesn't make the humour any funnier; secondly, though, and more alarming, is that I fear this is irony gone too far: in the current social climate, in which immigration policies are a key part of a pre-UK election debating arena, the racism of Cemetery Junction may well be championed without irony by a great number of people.

Freddie himself is the voice against this. In a scene later in the film, he highlights the contradiction of his father's logic. How, Freddie asks, can immigrants be “lazy” and “take our jobs” at the same time? The issue isn't pushed, but even so it's a rare moment in which the writers allow themselves to say something meaningful through dialogue. It's this area at which Gervais and Merchant prevail with an observational sharpness.

Overall, though, the film undoes itself. If it is sensitive to the stark situations young people find themselves in, giving voice to the factors that might lead to a disillusioned youth of faux happiness – for instance, Julie's would-be marriage to Mike, or the growing gulf between Freddie and his friends due to changing social statuses – it cheats itself with a soft, sentimental ending.

This sentimentality is 'bought', if you like, or disguised in some way (it isn't quite anchored), by a subplot involving Bruce and his alcoholic father (Francis Magee). Even here, though, there's a conclusive wrap-up, if a somewhat more bitter-sweet one.

The narrative is undermined by the fact that Freddie's sudden rejection of a well-paid job and better social status is based on that age-old cliché – love. We might recall The Graduate here; like that film, Cemetery Junction has things to offer but doesn't convince in its final depiction of rebellious youth.

If it's feel-good – and it probably is – it's mostly whimsical. At no point in the film does its plotting surprise you. It's as if the challenge of new economic territory – a period production and a bigger budget – has made Gervais and Merchant play it safe. It's never less than watchable, of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't formulaic.

Julie is a charming girl whose own mother (Emily Watson) pushes her into the final act of rebellion, seeing in it a way of flouting the patriarchal domination over the entire house. Freddie's own rebellion, on the other hand, is equally problematic. Throughout the film, as he grows closer to Julie, he begins to repeat her phrasings to his own friends. It makes you wonder, given how fatally impressionable the lad is, how he was ever able to rebel against the tradition of a factory life in the first place – especially given that both his father and best friend work there.

Dir: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant | Year: 2010 | Country: UK
Running Time: 95 mins approx | With: Christian Cooke, Felicity Jones, Tom Hughes, Jack Doolan, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Ricky Gervais