The Invention of Lying
Written and Directed by: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis CK, Jonah Hill
You have to wonder what kind of person has it within them these days to conceive of a fantasy-based comedy and believe in it enough to see it through. Movies like this simply haven’t been very good or funny lately, and despite a promising trailer, The Invention of Lying seemed destined to contain a zillion unexplainable and/or nonsensical holes, and would at best resemble a mediocre SNL skit stretched to 90 minutes. Most people opined that it looked like another take on Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar. But of all things I worried that the brilliant creator of The Office, Ricky Gervais, would turn out a high concept comedy as torturous to sit through as Year One or Click. While it turns out that while some of these fears were well-founded, I’m also pleased to say that I was wrong to underestimate Gervais when he has more to deliver than just laughs.
Like many other comedies with outlandish premises, this film has a tough challenge of finding a balance between fleshing out the world with effective satire while at the same time delivering believable characters and an actual story. Groundhog Day succeeds by being somewhat of a “time travel” movie, with real people who are merely living each day anew. Idiocracy falters (although I’ve come to like it a lot more on rewatches) by having so much to say about an idiotic future that it has no time to breathe, and thus its main cast of characters are uninteresting, and the supporting players are actually overplaying their part to a cartoonish end that ironically undermines the premise for the sake of humor. The Invention of Lying lies (ugh, no pun intended) somewhere in the middle, meaning we end up with a likable, occasionally charming movie with something to say that at the same time is missing several opportunities for comedic exploration that makes the previously mentioned films so unique.
Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter at a movie studio that makes blockbuster films of people reading historical documents about such things as the invention of the automobile. Bellison has very little luck socially, beaten down so much by his difficult job of making the Black Plague interesting enough for the screen, and by his mean-spirited co-workers (including Rob Lowe, tapping back into his Wayne’s World-style villainy) that he is about to lose his apartment. At just the right moment, he seizes upon an opportunity to create the world’s first lie. Amazed by his accomplishment, he immediately uses his gift for both good and evil: taking advantage of casinos, telling people what they need to hear to survive another day, and advancing his own love life. Eventually this leads to religion, where Gervais, an outspoken atheist, definitely runs with the ball and for a solid chunk of the film creates a modern day version of The Life of Brian, casting himself as the Messiah. Much has been made of this segment of the film, and while some may certainly be offended, overall Gervais’ handling smartly shows how the invention of religion both immediately brings the best and worst out of people. Overall Bellison’s discovery of lying posits an argument that it’s a very good thing that lying exists — for the sake of better art, for a more polite and compassionate society, and for the sake of developing relationships and falling in love. Yuck.
It’s that latter 4-letter word that unfortunately derails a good chunk of this film, as Gervais has no bones about going for some sap, and about framing this world around a rom-com story. While his first emotional scene is surprisingly well executed, most others overshadow some of his ideas, and the rom-com framing throws a wrench into the suspension of disbelief. For one, it should be noted that people in this world do not merely tell the truth at all times; they also happen to blurt out what they are thinking at random. It’s done for the sake of humor, and while it often works, the things they reveal should derail everything and work counter to their intentions. Jennifer Garner’s love interest character in particular, though not badly performed, brings out this flaw in the film most often. Constantly attacking Gervais for his appearance, it is beyond reason why Gervais would keep persuing her, calling her a good person and his best friend despite her obviously being so openly shallow. I often wondered if Gervais’ character was actually lying when he would praise her, but it becomes clear he’s serious. I suppose one could argue Gervais is taking digs at himself; that in an honest world only desperate people would be with him; that he would have to get used to it and accept it. It’s still tough to swallow as you watch. So while I praise Gervais for wanting to ground everything in character, Garner’s character remains as clueless as anyone in the lie free world that it’s hard to get behind them as a couple. Her character only decides to love him because the script needs it to.
It’s unfortunate that these scenes fail so hard, because it means that more of this world is not properly explored. Gervais doesn’t really lay a glove on politics, war, how the world is not any more or less advanced than it currently is, or how its history could basically be the same. It means stabs at corporate truth in advertising (“Coke. It’s very famous.”) don’t get mined more often, and we don’t get the seemingly promised payoffs of a world that suddenly discovers religion and fictional storytelling. I don’t know if this is a spoiler, but the world never actually discovers lying for itself, so we don’t see the chaos and panic that could ensue in a world with deceit suddenly thrust upon them.
All of what I’ve said to date is mostly ignoring something very important: is this comedy funny? The answer is yes. It’s funny enough, not necessarily “ha-ha” funny or the awkward situation funny we often get from Gervais, but it does take much better advantage of his self-deprecating charm than Ghost Town did, and more often than not, it uses its endless supply of star cameos at least as well as the early Muppet movies did. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment to some, but I think Gervais would appreciate it. While some such as Tiny Fey and Christopher Guest are wasted and inconsequential additions, others (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Merchant, Martin Starr, Ed Norton, and Jason Bateman) get just enough to do in their few moments on screen to justify stunt casting in favour of a no name. Louis CK, Rob Lowe and Jonah Hill are used well enough in their supporting roles. Much like typical road movies, and like in Idiocracy, a movie with a strange premise can benefit from faces you know getting a few shots in and prevent you from growing weary of the premise. It doesn’t always work, but Gervais does well to recruit so many of his many friends and fans.
The Invention of Lying will disappoint about as many as elates, but overall I think it’s safe to say most people will come out of Gervais and Robinson’s co-directed film somewhere just above or below the Mendoza Line, decrying the sap and lauding specific moments and ideas. This review may come across as mostly negative, however the film’s strength is in the actual satire, and I wouldn’t want to spoil much. It’s hard to say if it would benefit from rewatch or not, but I know I’m willing to give it the chance on DVD, if only to see the deleted scenes that promise a prehistoric man played by Karl Pilkington. Far from a home run, The Invention of Lying is still ambitious, worth exploring, and enjoyable in spite of its flaws. I didn’t laugh even a tenth as much as I did at say, The Hangover, but I guarantee I’ve already thought about it more often. — Goon