Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On DVD: "Cemetery Junction"

There comes a painful and unfortunate moment in just about every young man's life when he realizes that he's outgrown his friends. (If you haven't had that moment, then guess what? Your friends have outgrown you.) In Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant's Cemetery Junction, Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) has just arrived at that moment. When the picture begins, Freddie has left his factory job, where he worked alongside his dad (Gervais) and his best friend Bruce (Tom Hughes); he's gone to work as an "assurance agent" for Mr. Kendrick (Ralph Finnes), and sees his new boss as a role model who shook off the dust of his very same hometown and schools to become a rich businessman. But he still spends his nights and weekends with Bruce, a roughneck always on the lookout for a brawl, and Snork (Jack Doolan), a vulgar dork with a childish sense of humor. These are not serious friends, and he now has serious ambitions. Or does he?
Writer/directors Gervais and Marchant are, of course, the creators of the original British version of The Office, as well as its follow-up show Extras. Their collaborative feature film debut is, surprisingly, not in that "comedy of awkwardness" vein; it is a low-key (thought often amusing) period coming-of-age comedy/drama. The conflicts and relationships of the picture are fairly familiar: Freddie is embarrassed by his friends, misunderstood by his family, and pines for the boss's daughter Julie (Felicity Jones), a childhood crush who is engaged to his smooth-talking colleague Mike (Matthew Goode), a self-centered dick. What is impressive about Cemetery Junction is how elegantly Gervais and Marchant spin these lower-class, small-town story standbys into something fresh and involving.

The cast helps; Cooke is engaging, Jones is a heartbreaker, and Hughes is very nearly as James Dean-ish as he is clearly trying to be. Most of the important roles are played by unknowns, with the recognizable actors appearing in supporting roles. Among them, Gervais is just funny enough to give the picture a lift without derailing it, Finnes crafts a spot-on portrait of the upper-class business prig, and Emily Watson is sheer perfection as his wife (her last scene is a showpiece of unforced power; I turned to my wife and mused, "And that's why you get Emily Watson to be in your movie").

The drama and humor doesn't always mesh as easily as the filmmakers might like, but when they do--as in the extended "Winners Ball" sequence--the skill and ease of the execution is arresting (we can even overlook the fact that Freddy would never actually bring his friends to it). Gervais and Marchant show solid directorial instincts as well; in the scene where Julie's "future" is hashed out by her father and future husband, with her mother and several business associates looking on, they know that the most interesting person in the scene is Watson, who doesn't have a single line. A nightclub brawl late in the film is beautifully controlled--the way time and sound are stretched show a sense of visual dazzle that came as a surprise to this longtime fan. Cemetery Junction marks a change of pace and tone for the duo--it's sweet and likable, and only tinged with prickliness (as opposed to their other works, which tend to reverse that equation). It's not the film you'd expect from them, but that, it seems, may be the entire reason they made it.

Cemetery Junction's straight-to-DVD release stateside (save for a single-week theatrical engagement in Glendale, CA) is downright befuddling; far worse British films of comparable star-wattage--how ya doin', History Boys--have at least received a limited run in American theaters (and Gervais's far-inferior Invention of Lying saw a wide American release less than a year ago). Energetic, gentle, and frequently funny, its less-than-perfect path to disc and well-worn premise shouldn't scare off viewers; the fact that so much of it has been done before doesn't negate how much of it is done well here.

"Cemetery Junction" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 17th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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