Ricky Gervais goes serious? Hmm. I love The Office, I love Extras and I love Ricky full stop (it's the laugh). But as his career wheel has started turning and the David Brent act has worn thin, Gervais clearly has his eye on the long game - that means cutting back on comic exasperation and showing himself capable of something with soul. Hence Cemetery Junction, Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant's first directorial effort; a coming-of-age comedy set in Gervais' home town.
Reading, 1973. Three young friends - Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan) - have all reached a point in their lives when their teenage momentum can take them no further. Freddie has hopes of being an insurance salesman and escaping the working class rut that ensnared his father; Bruce, a Jack the lad archetype, frequently lashes out due to daddy issues. And Snork? He's the fat comic relief looking for love. Thankfully there is very little robot dancing. None, in fact.
The story is hardly an ambitious one, but it's a yarn that's well told and easy to relate to; it'll transport you back to that horrible age when you realise you've actually got to do
something with your life - it's sink or swim and you've been treading water for years. Gervais and Merchant's 'kitchen sink' aspirations are clear from the outset, but it's refreshing to see an adult topic handled with realism instead of rose-tinted nostalgia. If Cemetery Junction was American, Freddie and Bruce would probably express themselves via the medium of urban dance. As it is, Reading is a dead-end town with few such options available.
"Do you ever wonder if the swinging sixties skipped our town altogether?" wonders love interest Julie (Felicity Jones) as she surveys her decaying surroundings. Reading is hardly a prime location for a platform-soled, Spangles Lolly-sponsored trip down memory lane as presented by Vernon Kaye. In short: it's a shithole. The period setting has been captured to a tee; it's all red bricks, ghastly wallpaper, casual racism and cut-glass fruitbowls. Everything is viewed through a haze of cigarette smoke. It's little wonder the kids want out.
To that end, the infuriatingly good-looking cast - with angled cheekbones, pouting lips and teeth bigger than their mouths, they're like a Freemans catalogue come to life - all do their part expertly. It's testament to Gervais and Merchant's knack for casting that come the end, you're invested in all three leads' plot threads. That says everything about both the quality of the script and the measure of the three main performances. Most comedy writers can't help writing in their own voice; the trademark tells of Gervais and Merchant are all but absent, save for Ricky's own non-PC routine as Freddie's outspoken dad.
Elsewhere, Ralph Fiennes oozes quiet menace as Freddie's insurance salesman boss, while Emily Watson does sterling work as his glassy-eyed wife, the dysfunctional couple representing a future in which the young cast can see scary amounts of themselves. It's a beguiling mix of talent old and new - watch out for Tom Hughes in particular.
The odd cliché does rear its ugly head as Cemetery Junction trundles towards a somewhat predictable finale - but what romantic drama hasn't ended with a mad dash to the train station/airport/shuttle launchpad? Put it down to Gervais and Merchant's inexperience as directors and their desire to tell a small, intimate story, one that doesn't require much in the way of surprises. The soundtrack isn't exactly inspired either ("Stop listening to music by poofs and put on something by Elton John") but it gets the toes tapping nonetheless.
Save for some near-the-knuckle banter about starving Ethopians and a particularly cringeworthy tattoo, you wouldn't really call Cemetery Junction a 'comedy' and it'll likely confuse audiences sucked in by the promise of more laughs from the creators of The Office. What it does have, though, is soul, and in that respect, it might just help us take Ricky Gervais seriously after all.