The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros., PG-13)

invention_of_lying_header.jpgThe humor is at times subtle and smart, and at others broad and bawdy, but the movie never stops making you laugh.



Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais in The Invention of Lying.


Ricky Gervais is well overdue for mainstream success in America. Not that people aren’t familiar with his work, whether it’s as the star and co-creator of the original UK version of The Office, as failed actor Andy Millman on the HBO series Extras, or as the writer and guest star of one of the best Simpsons episodes of the last decade or so (the Wife Swap parody "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife"). But if the disappointing box office returns of his first film as a headliner, Ghost Town, are any indication, his name isn’t well-known and well-thought-of enough to put asses in theatre seats in any large numbers. If there is any justice in this world, The Invention of Lying will change all that.

The premise of The Invention of Lying is so simple it’s kind of staggering no one thought of it before: it’s the story of the world’s first lie in a world where everyone, in every situation, always tells the truth. Gervais plays Mark Bellison, an out-of-shape 40-ish shlub with no romantic prospects and a dead-end job as a screenwriter always on the verge of being fired (he knows this because his boss and his coworkers constantly tell him so). His life was already in the shitter, but we join him just as he’s circling the bottom of the bowl: a date with his dreamgal Anna (Jennifer Garner) is a total disaster (she doesn’t want to have "chubby kids with snub noses"), his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) finally makes good on his longstanding promise to fire him, and his landlord is ready to evict him. All he can do is dejectedly go to the bank and withdraw the last $300 he has to his name. Until, that is, a light goes off in Mark’s head: why ask for the amount he has in the bank when he can ask for what he needs to pay his rent? And in a world where no one has ever heard a lie, where the words "lie" and "truth" don’t even exist, why wouldn’t they believe it, or any other untruth he could possibly think up?

It seems like the setup for a scenario not unlike Bruce Almighty, an opportunity for Gervais to yuk it up as he struts around taking advantage of his newfound power until he (of course) has a change of heart and learns a heartwarming lesson in empathy. The trailers would imply that that’s the case as well, but Gervais is a very different kind of comedian than Jim Carrey and The Invention of Lying is, fortunately, a very different kind of movie. His Mark is a bumbling, likable guy who is too pure-hearted to ever really take advantage of people with his newfound power. Instead, he uses it to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), telling her that a heavenly paradise full of all her loved ones awaits her on the other side, an act of kindness that blows up in his face when word of his secret "knowledge" of the afterlife spreads and Mark is forced to invent lies on an increasingly grander scale.

The Invention of Lying sinks its teeth in early with its meticulous world-building. Gervais and Matthew Robinson (who share both the writing and directing credits) imagined this lie-free universe down to the tiniest detail, even down to the advertisements ("Pepsi: For when they don’t have Coke"). Words like "truth" and "lie" are never so much as uttered (because why would they have a word for the nonexistent latter, or bother to give a name to the former?). Even Mark’s job as a screenwriter gets in on the joke, where all the movies written by Mark and his rival Brad (a smarmy Rob Lowe) are nothing more than narrators reading about historical events, because both writing fiction and acting would require people to say or do things that aren’t true. The movie is packed with these kinds of clever twists.

More slyly, it’s also packed with thoughtful observations on the way people interact with each other. Nearly every example you could ever think of when you would fib to spare another’s feelings are put on display here, from the rude truth behind a waiter’s smile ("I took a sip from your drink") to blind dates ("No, I won’t be having sex with him tonight") to workplace chit-chat ("I’ve loathed every minute I’ve worked with you"), showing off just how heartless our inner monologue can be to our friends and loved ones.

In contrast to Ghost Town (which Gervais only acted in but did not write), Gervais’ unmistakable style oozes from every scene in the film. It’s a perfect distillation of his comic style, getting to the heart of our human foibles while still making us laugh at them. The humor is at times subtle and smart, and at others broad and bawdy, but the movie never stops making you laugh. It’s also not without its dramatic moments, with the deathbed scene between Mark and his mother making for the kind of powerful, emotional scene that is so rare in comedy, using intense sadness to set up jokes that hit from unexpected angles.

Gervais is helped out by a stellar cast. Jennifer Garner is fantastic at channeling Anna, a girl who in any other world would be a sweetheart, but in this no-lie zone, every casual thought she has becomes another dagger through Mark’s heart. Garner and Gervais make for a mismatched pair, but it’s a testament to both of their skills that their love story develops so perfectly that it never strains believability. No other characters get much screentime or development, but the cameo-rich cast (Lowe, Tambor, Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Edward Norton, and countless more) do a flawless job of coming in, making with the funny, and staying out of Gervais’ way.

This movie is so perfectly executed that it’s nearly impossible to find fault in it. Though it nears 100 minutes, it keeps things moving at such a clip that it never once drags or feels overlong. Some religious types may bristle at the implication that in a world of truth, notions like Heaven or God could only be borne from lies, but for most that’s hopefully a minor hurdle. For everyone else, this is one of the funniest, most thought-provoking films you’ll see all year. | Jason Green


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