It’s 1973 and the small, working-class town of Cemetery Junction is kind of a bummer. It’s the type of place where everyone who grows up there, spends their entire life talking about leaving, how they’re not going to wind up working in the factory like their father, coming home every night with grease on their hands and nothing to show for the day. Yet for all the talk of escape, of wanting something different, most never people leave.
This is the world explored by Cemetery Junction the movie, written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creators of The Office and Extras. Don’t expect the frantic, off-the-cuff riffing, or wiseacre humor of either of those shows. What they deliver here is primarily a drama. There’s humor, but it’s undercut with a sense of sadness and gloom. Sure, Bruce (Tom Hughes) might draw a giant penis on a street sign and get a cheap laugh from Freddie (Christian Cooke) and Snork (Jack Doolan), but they’re in their early 20s, and you get the feeling that they will wind up doing this forever.
Freddie, Bruce, and Snork have been mates since childhood, and they spend the majority of their time drinking, fighting, and chasing girls. It’s good to have friends who will pin you down and fart on you. Bruce is the kind of guy who does nothing but talk trash about Cemetery Junction, but will defend it like an angry dog if an outsider speaks ill of the place. This town may be a dump, but it’s his dump. Snork is the chubby, goofy friend who says inane things that chase away women, and has a tattoo on his chest of a naked female vampire that he drew himself.
Freddie, however, wants something grander than to “work, get married, the usual.” He doesn’t want to end up like everyone else, so he leaves his job at the factory and gets hired to sell life insurance door to door for Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes). Eventually he falls for Julie (Felicity Jones), the boss’s daughter, who also happens to be engaged to Kendrick’s right hand man (Matthew Goode). She tells him to “throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it,” that is, she tells him to chase his passions.
Freddie tries to hang on to his old way of life while exploring new horizons, and the two clash sharply. In reality, the two worlds are not so different. Either way, in the factory or as a salesman, they use you for all you’re worth, and when you’re finished they send you out the door with a cut glass fruit bowl and an insincere handshake as your reward. Neither option is particularly appealing.
The supporting cast is wonderful. Fiennes is great as usual, and Steve Speirs makes everyone around him better. Emily Watson is devastating as Kendrick’s brow beaten wife, as is Francis Magee as Bruce’s alcoholic father. Watson and Magee barely utter a word between them, but both characters are heartbreaking. This kind of subtlety is what Cemetery Junction is all about. It never falls into clichés like a confrontation with the fiancé, or the big dramatic kiss, and consequently feels real where it could have easily become melodrama.
Gervais and Merchant take a trio of young, incredibly talented actors and search inside of them. Jokes mask tears. Jobs hide dreams. Cemetery Junction is a coming of age story, but not in the usual, children becoming adults manner. These are young men struggling to figure out what they want, what they really want out of life. The emotion they create is delicate, but genuine. In this movie the simple act of a son sitting next to his father and not saying a word powerfully conveys a lot of heartfelt information. The story cuts through the despair and finds an uplifting place of honesty, courage, and hope. Indeed, Cemetery Junction might just break your heart.
The DVD comes with a boatload of bonus material. Gag reels are often throwaway extras, but not in this case. Only Ricky Gervais, in the role of Freddie’s father, can make trying to burp on cue for three straight minutes funny. Gervais and Merchant also get a commentary track and a long interview. You get a real sense of how they work together. Gervais is the more expressive, manic one, while Merchant is more calm and calculated. The complementary styles and personalities are further demonstrated by their physical differences; Gervais is short and stocky, while Merchant is tall and gangly, standing almost a full head above his partner.
The best bonus features are the ones with the three stars, Cooke, Hughes, and Doolan. Like the directors, they have a group interview, and a commentary track all to themselves. It’s a good mixture between behind the scenes stories about the film and the trio bantering back and forth. The chemistry and friendship between them is what carries the film and makes it work so well. Listening to them is not only entertaining, but illustrates why they were perfect for their respective roles.