Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais; Stephen Merchant, 2010)

“Whatever you desire, imagine its in front of you right now and just grab it!”
Introduction
I am normally never too keen on reviewing films we’ve reviewed recently on the podcast – because i’d rather mix-it-up a little and have a bit of variety. But, I have just re-capped the Kermode and Mayo podcasts – or, more specifically, the Richard Bacon with Floyd and Boyd podcasts. They spoke to Mark Millar – writer of Kick-Ass (annoyingly, if only I had listened to the podcast earlier, I would have nabbed an extra ‘point’ in Bourne’s Brain Baffler) and additionally had Ricky Gervais guesting. The thing is, both Jo and I – both huge Ricky Gervais fans – completely disliked Cemetery Junction and yet, Floyd, Boyd and Richard Bacon all loved the film. They were gushing to Gervais about how good it was and, in the following weeks podcast, continued to gush about how great it is. I can’t help but think that they are praising Gervais rather than Cemetery Junction. Thing is, as the fan who constantly quotes from The Office– “has he passed the forklift-drivers test? he gives the forklift-drivers tests” and a fan who constantly defended Extras – and was positively touched by the finale given: the poignant finale regarding Millman’s fame-kamikaze – only to be even more loved was inspired. Fact is, Ghost Town wasn’t great, The Invention of Lying – though an interesting talking point, simply was too twee and cliche in its rom-com style. And, after only a single watch granted, Cemetery Junction hardly ‘establishes’ Gervais and Merchant – if anything it knocks them down a peg or three. I’m sorry Ricky – I think you are a legend in every sense of the word – but this was simply not good enough.
The Same Theme
It opens as Freddie (Christian Cooke) is interviewed by Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) – who, on hearing Freddie explain how ‘Mr Kendrick’ was his inspiration – getting ‘out’ of the shithole that is Cemetery Junction – gives him the job. This passionate, heart-on-your-sleeve trait that Freddie has is what gets him quite far – enthusiasm going a long way. Nevertheless, it is Freddies friends that we track alongside – good-looking Bruce (Tom Hughes) and not-so-good-looking Snork (Jack Doolan). Its revealed at one point that Bruce – and assuming they were friends since school – is twenty, placing the boys that little bit older than goofy teens – more-like, foolish boys who spent more time farting-on-each-others-heads and taking-the-piss out of the police rather than study at school. Nevertheless, Freddie is intelligent and we know from the opening sequence that the theme is, again ‘Breaking Free’ – akin to Tim and Dawn in The Office, the twenty-something lovebirds who are well-aware of the dull-life they have chosen to live – and, in Dawn’s case – the passions sacrificed for the steady-job life. So, this is territory seen before – but this time it is in the seventies with a crackin’ soundtrack featuring Led Zeppelin, Elton John, T-Rex and David Bowie.

The Truth of the Working Class

My problem is this – why is everyone so unhappy? Gervais, playing Freddies Dad, is constantly bickering with his Mum – all very funny, but worryingly knocking the ‘dreams’ Freddie has at every corner. Freddies housewife Mum who hasn’t ‘seen parts of Reading’, while Bruce’s Dad is a lonely alcoholic – finally we come across Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode, as Mike Ramsay, who – although successful – clearly have mixed morals. One sequence shows Goode convince an elderly couple into a life-insurance deal and Fiennes character doesn’t even say ‘thanks’ for a cup of tea – so clearly they are unlikable characters. Nevertheless, this is clearly not an accurate depiction of all working-class men of the seventies in Reading. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – we need more films like Five Easy Pieces rather than another pseudo-inpirational tale aking to Rocky. Gervais shows how Tim, though stuck in his office job – a job he doesn’t like so much – he effectively does so for Dawn. Dawn has her own art which she is forced to not focus on through Lee – even David Brent, though a complete plonker, lives for the attention he craves. The simplistic attitude that ‘all you have to do is get on a train and get out of town’ is short-sighted. Freddie was leaving to ‘travel’ – akin to Julie’s cousin – but how on earth can he do that? How can he afford it? He does have the confidence to probably blag a job here and there – but you follow the simplistic story through and you realise that, ahem, maybe not.

And I hate writing this – I hate the fact that this is actually the type of thing people (me?) write to stop themselves from achieving their passion. People convince themselves that they ‘can’t get out’ of whatever town or family or situation that pulls their dreams into focus. Personally, I am hoping that the passion and constant chip, chip, chipping away at my goal is what will take me there. I know what Gervais is trying to say about breaking free – my family chastised me when I was to train to be a teacher (because I already had a job so should ‘stick at that’). Hardly a risky profession to ‘break in to’, but I still had to win people over to do it. Fact is, I am in a profession whereby I am constantly surrounded by passionate kids and surrounded by Art – every day I draw and I also have the time in holiday breaks and weekends to write and watch whatever film I’d like to. So far, I am in a position to pursue my goal outside of teaching – but I have not reached it. (NB-the goal is anything that constantly keeps me involved in cinema – writing about it, making, it, viewing it … you pick…)

A Comparison with An Education [Spoilers for both An Education and Cemetery Junction]

A film, which I feel would be a superior counterpiece to Cemetery Junction, is An Education. Both set in the hazy glow of the seventies and sixties respectively. Both use these time-periods to raise current issues. Both protaganists Freddie and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) know that there is ‘more to life’. Interestingly, both Freddie and Jenny want to go to Paris – and yet come face-to-face with characters who back-hand their wishful thinking. Obviously, as each film progresses, the outcomes are completely different. In An Education Jenny, with the assistance of creepy David (Peter Sarsgaard) – gets to explore Paris and the hub-bub of London – even demanding her Headmistress to explain what the point is of her education if she will only end up in a life that is ‘hard and boring’. Freddie on the other hand is working that ‘hard and boring’ life as a life-insurance salesman – Bruce moreso as a sander in a factory – Freddie finds it difficult to ‘break free’ – but he does and he gets the girl. End of story. The complexity I miss in Cemetery Junction is the issues that are raised in An Education during the final act. We completely stand by Jenny and her views – no one wants to live a ‘hard and boring’ life – that is not the point of it all. But Jenny’s desires get the better of her and she invests her life in David – who, we find out, is having an affair. David is married and, potentially, had no intention to support Jenny. Jenny breaks down – she could have gone to Oxford but, because of this passion for perfection, with the assistance of David, she blows it. Well not really, the last five minutes – the worst in the film – give An Education that happy ending we want poor Jenny to have.

Fact is, it is that separation of blind-ambition and true-passion that provides the conflict in An Education whilst in Cemetery Junction, it is unclear what Freddie wants to do with his life – if anything, it doesn’t matter – he just wants to ‘explore’. I think everyone wants to ‘explore’ the world but for some, it takes many years of saving up and preparation. I think in seventies Reading, witht the cost of flying and all that, Freddie could get to Brighton and then he can’g go further. 

Potential Complexities

One thought crosses my mind. Gervais – who truly is an inspiration – says how this is the most personal project he has worked upon. Gervais had parents much like the ones portrayed in Cemetery Junction and he himself was brought up in Reading. But one thing that inspired his writing of The Office was many years – something like eight years – he spent working in an office. Personally I have never been in a job that long – but I am well aware of how you can get comfortable very easily in some jobs. A more complex angle would be to show Freddie at a point when he is fimrly at Mr Kendricks’ Life-Insurance company – more like Matthew Goodes character – but over the course of the film realises how he never ‘took a risk’ and the conflict is whether he will take that risk to pursue his dream, whatever that might be. I am sure films like this has been made before, but with this unique Gervais-tone, it would bring a special uniqueness to the tale. Fact is, someone who has nothing to lose at the start of the film doesn’t really lose much by the end of the film by ‘breaking free’. I think thats the crux of it – from the very start, you know Freddie could and would do better. You know Fiennes is sinister. You know prospects in Reading are slim. So, the tension over whether he will leave Reading isn’t there. Of course he’d leave Reading – who wouldnt! (and from spending a year there myself … I would agree. ‘The Oracle’ is not exactly ‘the place to be’). The complexity would lie in showing the attractiveness of this comfortable job – the potential family and happiness that people do and could find in a steady income. The twist being, Freddie has a special talent of passion that he needs to embrace ‘before its too late’.

Even Bruce’s narrative is more interesting as his relationship with his Father is rooted in self-hatred and self-denial. He doesn’t want to be like his Dad but, we find out, he is pretty much the same. But like most predictable facets to the film, Bruce decides to … well, it looks like he accepts his similarities and stays home to be much more like his Dad. Probably more than that – Bruce obviously stays to look after his Dad. All very touching – but add another dimension. What about if Bruce was more keen to travel than Freddie but his Dad was what pulled him to stay – now that is a conflict.

A Fair Verdict

So many people are heaping praise on this film and, following Travis and Nick’s Demented Encyclopedia podcast on ‘movies people love but I hate’, this seems to be one of them for me. Luckily, I’m not completely on my own: Jason Solomons and Peter Bradshaw didn’t care about the lead three characters at all, claiming that it was only funny when Gervais was on screen and everything outside of it was pretty dull.
Seriously, I cannot stress how much I am a fan of Gervais. Listening to Ricky on the normally-Kermode-Mayo-but-instead-is-Bacon-and-Floyd-and-Boyd podcast, he still seems such a great bloke but, alas, these ventures into cinema have truly let me down. I even saw Ricky live at The Royal Albert Hall on his Fame tour! I really want to love these films but unfortunately I truly do not.
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11 comments

  1. Wow, that's one hell of a write up! Good job!

    I am not a big Gervais fan. I liked The Office, though Extras was okay but never really gave it my full attention. Ghost Town made me laugh quite a bit — and I thought Invention Of Lying was AWFUL! So that's where I come from with all this.

    Cemetery Junction – I liked it. You're probably right in a lot of what you say, analysis-wise, i.e. things being predictable, etc – it just seemed to work for me though. I found a lot of truth in it.

    “My problem is this – why is everyone so unhappy? Gervais, playing Freddies Dad, is constantly bickering with his Mum – all very funny, but worryingly knocking the 'dreams' Freddie has at every corner.” — for me, this was the strong point. This is exactly how life is – full of people cutting down dreams of those around them, even the people they love. And with that attitude often comes narrow minded in other areas too, i.e. 'those foreigners are lazy and stealing our jobs.' It was refreshing to hear this kind of truth on the big screen – I could respond to it.

    I knew straight away, of course, that he'd end up running away with the girl along for the ride. That was never in question, but it didn't deter me – in fact, the film got stronger and stronger for me as it went along, I was fully invested with the characters.

    I agree though, it's not genius or anything – but I definitely like it.

  2. I agree with the sentiment but (a) people who haven't got such creative passions are no less a person, they are people whose passions lay elsewhere and (b) the challenge to work towards your passions is a long and challenging road – not some 'quick-fix' leap-on-the-train choice – the choice to work for it is one thing, the road to it is completely different.

  3. your an idiot simon.

    this film was totally original.

    if you want to go watch big hollywood blockbusters that sap the life out of decent cinema then I suggest you keep an eye out for any film with the word “Date” in it.

    this film was about as british as it gets and we need more of it, so what if i didnt satisfy all your film taste buds, your probably fresh from seeing avatar. suppose you didnt like this is england because it wasnt overdone enough.

    did anyone spot KP in the film. I did

  4. Well “anonymous”, my biggest problem was the lack of scope: “guy wants to break free, and does – for a woman”. No complexity to a complex issue. Ironically, clearly you ain't read my review of 'Avatar' – not exactly the film to 'satisfy my taste buds' and, now you bring up [the excellent] This is England, its a very complex story but delivered well – the problem with CJ.

    have a feeling you havent read anything other than the first paragraph…

  5. haha! BOOM! 'anonymous' attacks!

    I wish i could agree with 'anonymous', but calling this film “totally original” is just not true. Garden State? Stand By Me? The Darjeeling Limited? Hell, so many films are about breaking free of baggage to find true happiness! I loved Cemetery Junction, I think it delivered an important and necessary and true message about youth, making the most of low-responsibility and the true meaning of happiness. Just, you can't say “you're an idiot simon. it was totally original” because it's simply not true.

    make a point, pick the reviewers points apart, rage, rage against the dying light. But don't just call someone an idiot with no basis other than the identity protection of the world wide web!

    Yours
    The Bangor Rep

  6. As you know, I watched this last night and heartily enjoyed it. I'm not a Gervais fan (I don't find him funny, dislke The Office, had to turn Politics off) and in this regard, I think that actually aided my enjoyment in finally seeing something from him I could enjoy. You seem to have approached this very much from expecting it to live up to Gervais' previous works (which you admit you enjoyed very much) and how this fits into his development as a filmmaker, rather than its successes/failures as a film. Do you think if taken in isolation (admittedly hard, if not impossible) you could have come to different conclusions?

    Whilst I accept (though don't neccesarily agree) with some of your criticisms – the ones about predictability in particular, although I would point out that I found it refreshing that the film stayed fairly optimistic rather than dissapearing down the 'darker' alleyways so many dramas favour – I would point out that a lot of what you say above is story related. I think it's very easy to pick apart any story any film presents if you look closely enough at it (take your shot at anything currently at the box office – perhaps Inception excluded – and remember the 'who's driving the boat?' Kermode/Mayo criticism of Taken?) but much more difficult, especially in a film as well-produced, well-shot and well-acted as this, to find flaws with its core elements. And to be honest, I was enjoying its core elements so much that I really don't care if Freddie only makes it to Brighton: it was enough for me to see him happily get away, whilst on the flip-side I was being bored by Taken's mediocre action-thrilleryness and subdued lead turn from Neeson, that I didn't stop to question who was driving the boat.

    Each to their own but as I say, I enjoyed it, certainly more so than I did An Education, which was 90 minutes of Lone Scherfig philosophising that there was more to life than being educated before packing his heroine off to university in the final frame! Whilst CJ's convictions may be idealised and somewhat 'wishy-washy', at least it has the strength to stick by them.

  7. I think you're right – perhaps my fan-dom of attitude has raised my expectations of him. It doesn't try to be the complex film I thought it should be so… thats my problem I guess. I still don't like the film though. Like I said, the last 5 minutes of An Education was a shame, but it is ultimately more complex than the simlicity of CJ.

    Simon

  8. I've been meaning to subscribe to your podcast for a while actually – I'll definitely do so when I get on the right laptop later today. And yes, I noticed your comment on the last five mins of An Education – glad to find someone who agrees but thought I'd wittered on too much to say so! Oh and apologies to Lone Scherfig who is obviously a 'she' not a 'he', a mistake I noticed literally as I was clicking the 'post' button.

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