Ricky Gervais is a chubby little loser who became semi-famous among a small group of Americans for creating a British TV series called “The Office”. Like most British comedy, the show was very dry, and appealed mostly to those few Americans who appreciate obscure foreign cultural references and being rendered physically uncomfortable. It was eventually adapted by American comics to much greater success, owing largely to its attractive cast and lack of silly accents.
For the record, I adore both versions of “The Office”, and I only refer to Gervais as a “chubby little loser” because he’s quite fond of referring to himself as such. But this is the world of Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying – a world of brutal and unrepentant honesty. Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful screenwriter who accidentally discovers that he has the ability to lie. Anna (Jennifer Garner) is Mark’s potential love interest, with the minor hitch that she doesn’t find him attractive (and is happy to tell him so), and Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) is a thoroughly loathsome rival to Anna’s affections. Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. appear as Mark’s friends, joining a host of comedic cameos, including Martin Starr, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, and an almost unrecognizable Ed Norton.
Unsurprisingly, with so many comedic greats on board, the film excels at the humorous exploration of its reality. In a world with no lies, what are movies? What are advertisements? What is dating? All of these questions (and more) are answered, and the resulting world feels a bit like Liar Liar. Characters are forced to tell the absolute truth, and they do so even when they aren’t asked a direct question, making this not so much a world of honesty as a world of too much information. It would be downright alarming if not for the fact that no one reacts to these startling revelations in any visible way. In this sense, they seem childlike – an image that is reinforced as soon as Mark realizes how easy it is to lie to get what he wants. This kind of behavior could easily come off as predatorial, but Mark doesn’t entirely understand his new power, and is mostly well-meaning.
The people of this world start off with a blank slate, and the first half of the film resembles a Lockean state of nature (minus any notion of God) – which makes it all the more fitting when Mark accidentally invents the concepts of God and Heaven at the top of the film’s second half.
At this point, this film might well be retitled “The Invention of Religion”, and becomes perhaps one of the most overtly antireligious films of the year (which might explain its pervasive Budweiser product placement – gotta pay the bills somehow). For his part, Gervais seems quite at home in the ranks of atheist comics – he even delivers a hilarious “Ten Commandments” scene reminiscent of George Carlin. This act feels more or less like an origin story for morality, and is at least moderately fascinating as such. Unfortunately, Mark is not the most well-conceived moral authority. His morality is tenuous, illogical, and largely inconsistent. It seems mostly derived from Gervais’ desire to poke fun at religion, and in that sense its shortcomings may be at least somewhat deliberate. Nonetheless, at this point, Mark ceases to be a real character, and his romance with Anna starts to further strain credulity (despite a worthy effort by Jennifer Garner).
Anna is a fascinating case study in this world. She likes Mark, maybe even loves him. But she can’t be with him because Brad Kessler is more attractive, successful, and a better match for her genetically. In a world of no lies, the purpose of dating is getting married to make babies. Anna does not have Mark’s ability to lie, but she would have to go against her biological imperative in order to be with him (resulting in “little fat kids with snub noses”). With Anna, the film comes very close to classifying love as a form of self-deception, and this may ultimately be its most provocative theme.
Since “Extras”, Ricky Gervais has shown his aptitude for exploring the ideas of fame and undeserved notoriety, and this film definitely continues in that grain. But The Invention of Lying just feels like a bland entry, dabbling in many complex and fascinating ideas, but spending far too much time undermining them. The resulting allegory may well be enjoyed by some, but is mostly forgettable.
FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10