Making the transition from television to the big screen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying denotes the directorial debut of Ricky Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed with fellow feature film virgin Matthew Robinson. A smart high-concept comedy, this is an attractively-mounted and thematically thoughtful fantasy; not perfect by any means, but a worthwhile demonstration of Gervais’ talent for comedic timing and dry humour. Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel a little bit let down given the strength of Gervais’ TV work (The Office) and stand-up comedy. It seems odd that the British comedian has yet to create a genuine home run of a motion picture.
The Invention of Lying unfolds in a fantastical alternate universe, where lying does not exist. In fact, the word “lying” is absent from the dictionary, because nobody even knows of the concept. People have evolved to tell the absolute truth, as it is encoded into their minds. Mark Bellison (Gervais) is a hapless screenwriter who’s fired from his job, and is depressed because has no chance of wooing his dream girl, Anna (Jennifer Garner). At the end of his rope, Mark realises that he can tell untruths, which gives him a massive advantage, allowing him to topple his rivals and earn vast quantities of money. While comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), Mark lies to put her mind at ease, devising the notion of an afterlife and a God. However, he paints himself into a corner by telling such a tall tale, as people overhear him and blindly believe that he has all the answers. This attracts the attention of the general public and the global media.
Suffice it to say, in order for you to embrace The Invention of Lying, you need to accept this world and accept the fact that lies do not exist. Gervais even delivers voiceover narration at the beginning of the movie to tell us everything we need to know. If you can swallow the conceit, there is a lot of fun to be had. Gervais and Robinson take the concept and run with it, exploring all forms of lying that emphasise the importance of untruths. For instance, motion pictures do not feature actors since acting would be deception; rather, movies consist of people sitting around telling true stories in a dry, uninteresting fashion. Moreover, advertisements in this world are nothing but unremarkable fact-stating, reinforcing that companies lie about their products all the time. Various sight gags are a hoot, as well – including a nursing home called “A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People,” and a low-rent motel with the sign “A Place For Intercourse With A Near Stranger” – and it’s funny to hear characters speak their mind in a frank manner. The wit is often quite subtle at times, too, with odd speech patterns and deadpan facial nuances getting laughs.
More than anything else, Robinson and Gervais position The Invention of Lying as a total piss-take on the bible, positing that religion is simply the result of gullible people believing something far-fetched simply because they do not know any better. Gervais makes no bones about the fact that he’s an atheist, hence such content is very suitable for his directorial debut. The satire, though, is at times a bit too on the nose, layering on the religious ridiculing with the subtlety of a shotgun. Seeing Mark turn into a splitting image of Jesus is one step too far; the film needed a more delicate satiric touch, which is usually Gervais’ speciality. Also not overly successful is the romance between Mark and Anna. From the beginning, Anna tells Mark that she’s not attracted to him and is not interested in dating him because she wants her children to have good genetics. Anna is completely shallow and often cruel, making us wonder what exactly Mark sees in her and why she means so much to him. While it does give Gervais and Robinson the chance to further explore the central conceit, the subplot feels shoehorned in at the demands of formula.
Following his performances in Ghost Town and Night at the Museum 2, Gervais is a terrific fit for the role of Mark. He has a certain everyman quality and vulnerability, and his comic timing is spot-on. Added to this, Gervais is a fine thespian, as evidenced in the scene of Mark talking to his ailing mother on her deathbed that’s surprisingly poignant. Gervais is not an over-the-top performer, relying on naturalism to sell the character. Fortunately, he receives solid support from his co-stars; Garner does a decent job with her superficial character, while Jonah Hill scores a few laughs as Mark’s suicidal neighbour, and Louis C.K. is spot-on as Mark’s bar-dwelling friend. Tiny Fey also appears here, making the most of her small role and delivering several amusing one-liners. Rounding out the main players is the reliable Jeffrey Tambor as Mark’s boss, and a fairly funny Rob Lowe as a rival screenwriter.
Although The Invention of Lying is a bit underwhelming on the whole, there’s no denying that this is an original, well-conceived comedy from Robinson and Gervais. It’s especially note-worthy due to the way it underscores how much of our society is built on lies, half-truths and speculation, all of which are placed forth by religious groups, politicians, media outlets, and even our own parents. The Invention of Lying suggests that lying can be beneficial depending on the context, which is a refreshing message for a comedy. But while the film makes you think, it’s also a bright, enjoyable rom-com, even if Gervais is probably capable of better.