Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review - Cemetery Junction

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have spoken of their desire for Cemetery Junction to be seen as a film that deserves to reside on the big screen, one that isn't simply TV or DVD fodder masquerading as something more. Their film hardly lives up to such expectations, though. While Remi Adefarasin's cinematography gives the picture a superficially cinematic sheen, this is essentially small-minded fare, unimaginative in its ambitions and clumsy in its execution. When Gervais and Merchant introduce their principal characters, it's far too easy anticipate how their stories will be resolved, and the filmmakers never manage to confound our expectations. Their depiction of life in 1970's Reading may have its roots in personal experiences, but it feels like all-too-familiar territory.

Played by an appealing cast of unknowns, the characters are familiar types. Freddie (Christian Cooke) is our hero, a good-looking nice guy who wants to better himself, taking a job as an insurance salesman in the hope of avoiding a life as a factory worker, which is the life his bigoted father (Gervais) is living. For Freddie, rising through the ranks of the insurance firm, under the tutelage of boss Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) and his obsequious underling Mike Ramsay (Matthew Goode), is the only way to escape this dreary, dead-end town, until the arrival of Julie (Felicity Jones) – Mr Kendrick's daughter and Freddie's fiancée – opens his eyes to something new. She's a childhood friend of Freddie's, whose desire to travel the world as a photographer is at odds with the expectations of her father and husband-to-be, both of whom view a woman's place as being in the home raising her children.

That theme of escape and of self-improvement is one that runs through Gervais and Merchant's work, from their excellent The Office to their less impressive follow-up Extras, but they can't find any new angle or insight here. The writing is often crass and two-dimensional, with the depiction of Freddie's home life, in which his father, mother (Julia Davis) and grandmother (Anne Reid) trade racist banter around the kitchen table, being particularly risible. This lack of subtlety is mirrored in scenes from Julie's home life, with Mike and her father being portrayed as an appallingly chauvinistic pair and her meek mother (Emily Watson) acting as a kind of warning for the character, showing what a life living under these conditions can do to a woman (the climactic tea-pouring sequence is absurdly heavy-handed). We know that there's no way the beautiful and sensitive pairing of Freddie and Julie belong here, and Gervais and Merchant have fallen into the trap of making their characters' choices for them, by giving them no real choice at all. Other characters are written with a similar lack of finesse. Freddie's friend Bruce (Tom Hughes) is a feckless rebel from a broken home while Snork (Jack Doolan) is a fat and stupid loser whose sole purpose is to be the comic relief. Both actors are fine, but they are given very little to play, and Snork in particular is an implausibly clueless creation, whose eventual relationship with an equally simpleminded woman feels like a cheap and condescending move.

As a production, Cemetery Junction looks the part, with the decent production design creating an evocative portrait of the 70's in a small town, but Gervais and Merchant don't do anything interesting within that setting. Cemetery Junction doesn't have an original idea in its head, with the filmmakers employing a bland directorial style, writing clichéd dialogue for their actors, and making lazy choices from the decade for the soundtrack. The big comic set-pieces – notably a major embarrassment at an awards dinner – are laboriously set up and, when we finally reach the punchline, they tend to fall horribly flat. There's hardly a single laugh in the picture, which is the biggest surprise, as that's the one aspect of the film you'd imagine Gervais and Merchant could be relied upon to get right. Cemetery Junction is as dreary and lifeless as the town its characters are trying to escape from, and when they finally do break free, in the film's romantic conclusion, the effect is nullified by the feeling that we've seen it all before.