Monday, 19 April 2010

Cemetery Junction (2010)

* * *

(Dir. Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais, 2010)

Ricky Gervais' (and Stephen Merchant's) talent for sculpting important, instantly lovable characters is somewhat contaminated by a corny formula. From Tim Canterbury in
The Office, to Andy Millman in Extras, from the protagonists of Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying to Freddie in Cemetery Junction, the comics' identification and obsession with an intrinsically good, thoughtful saviour has become a painstakingly familiar, if successful, scenario. Hence Christian Cooke's outstanding debut in a lead role is damaged in several scenes by the camera's hyperbolic attention to his contemplative, sad eyes. OK, we get it: you're an ambitious, likable young man trapped in a humdrum town; this town will drag you down. It's this Smithsy angst and alienation that has inspired the very best in Gervais and Merchant, and at the same time has stopped them from creating anything emphatically new for ten years.

Cooke is Freddie, one of three young men seeking a way out of their deprived, depraved community, Cemetery Junction, before it's too late. Testosterone-pumped rebel, Bruce (Tom Hughes) and laughable-loser, Snork, are Freddie's loyal, carefree friends. Freddie lives with his mum, dad and nan and has decided to work for mercenary executive, Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), selling life insurance to gullible victims, instead of following in his working-class family's footsteps. Meanwhile Bruce lives with his alcoholic and passive father in permanent discord. Police-officer, Steve Speirs, immediately recognisable as the Welsh, bald divorcee from
Extras, is doing his best to save their relationship, and to keep the young, likely lads out of trouble. He and Emily Watson, as Mrs Kendrick, steal a film with performances of inestimable gravity.

We already know who Freddie is from the comedic sequences distinguishing our modern hero from his past-tense family and friends. He's a cosmopolitan but pretentious breath of fresh air in a stale, age-old-racist home, seeking to make "more" of his life than his father has done. For there is something positively Pip and
Great Expectations about Freddie and Cemetery Junction that works. Freddie's benign, common, factory-laboring dad (Gervais) is a redrafted Joe the blacksmith, while Fiennes plays the anti-gentleman, Pumblechook-type, whose status and money Freddie aspires toward. But Freddie will soon learn that there's more to being a good man than pursuing office space and fancy cars. Yawn.

Roman Polanski's new thriller,
The Ghost, released in the same week, was reviewed by Phillip French in yesterday's Observer. On Polanski, French cited the director's skill in making the audience "suspicious of the kindness of strangers". All too often in Gervais and Merchant, characters are black-and-white, good-or-bad, and we have little evidence to ever doubt our first impressions. The only discomfort in Cemetery Junction is in the superb squirming-humour set pieces - the ones where we're not sure whether to laugh or cry. To thank an old, retiring worker for his life-long service to the company, Mr Kendrick offers him a cut-glass fruit-bowl, and makes several mistakes in an insincere thank-you-speech (at the same event, Stephen Merchant and Matthew Holness cameo jocosely). Fiennes' speech is outawkwarded by a meeting we have been anticipating throughout; when the two different worlds of Reading collide, and the haughty Fiennes is introduced to Freddie's mates - experts in farting, swearing, fighting, graffiting, and in acquiring tattoos of naked vampire-women and concomitant erections.

As the film enters its final phase, an uplifting scene of pretty young people laughing and dancing their way around a nightclub is spoiled when Bruce punches someone for racially abusing an ironically token black girl. I'm not sure what Gervais and Merchant are trying to say by writing this episode into the film. That racism is wrong? Worse still, it's an episode that bears more of a plot function than a moral statement, getting Bruce back into prison so he can learn from his mistakes. Like the misrepresentation of insurance-salesmanship as something wholly evil, the theme of racism is unnecessarily and crudely dragged into
Cemetery Junction. It is another example of how the directors are at their best making comedy out of suffering, and not the other way around.

Whatever the gaping holes in this otherwise impressive armour of sparkling romance and (literally) cold metal of class-divide, Gervais and Merchant have created another story and batch of characters to fall in love with, or at least, to feel as if we know them personally. Their ability to graft a retrospectively feminist sub-plot is responsible for much of the movie's power. Like Dawn Tinsley, the artistic Julie is stuck, seemingly bereft of free will, with her one-dimensional tosser of a boyfriend. She is a mirror-image of her mother - the frighteningly versatile Emily Watson (
Red Dragon, Punch Drunk Love) - as she was in her youth, on the cusp of either adventure or misogynistic imprisonment. When housewife Watson brings Fiennes his tea and an echoing clock-hand tuts through a powerful silence, there is no "thank you", no acknowledgement by a husband of his wife's servitude or even existence, and Freddie watches on; a realisation-moment to match the very best in Gervais' and Merchant's emotionally intelligent archive.

Although we can all guess where the film is heading, its unsurprising plot is not its critical flaw. Hit-and-miss, this is both a fun, low-brow comedy and a self-serious social drama that would look better on TV, aka
Life on Mars, than as a motion picture. But if we forget for a moment who the directors are - something this review has failed to do - Cemetery Junction's watered-down American hopefulness and British glumness will make for rolling, as well as teary, eyes.

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