“The Invention of Lying” is the antithesis of last summer’s “Henry Poole Is Here,” which is to say that it’s an atheistic comedy instead of a faithful drama. Both are narrow-minded in that they fail to address a simple truth: The existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven. Still, the concept of “The Invention of Lying” is a very clever one, and I appreciated the fact that it goes for satire instead of saccharine. It’s often times quite funny, although never so goofy that the occasional serious statement doesn’t work its way through. It’s above all a great vehicle for Ricky Gervais, who not only stars but is also the co-writer and co-director. He plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter living in an alternate reality in which no one has ever told a lie; one day, he discovers to his astonishment that he’s capable of saying something that isn’t true.
Can you imagine a world free from lies? Books and movies as we know them would cease to be, and that’s because fiction is untrue by definition. How, then, is Mark a screenwriter? Simple: In this world, movies are nothing more than a continuous shot of learned gentlemen sitting in a chair, reading out of history books. Such dullness is not limited to movies, though. Advertising is little more than confirming the existence of a given product, as seen during a Coca-Cola commercial (“It’s basically just brown sugar-water,” says a monotone man standing next to a plain-looking pedestal with a glass of Coke resting on it). No one uses flattery, and there’s no such thing as sparing anyone’s feelings; when Mark first meets his blind date, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), she greets him at the door by saying, “I’m equally depressed and pessimistic about our date tonight.” Later on, during the date, she takes a call from her mother: “He seems nice,” she tells her. “A bit fat. No, I won’t be sleeping with him tonight.”
It goes beyond that. Nursing homes go by names such as A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People. Waiters will tell you that they took a sip of the cocktail you ordered, and they will also tell you if you’re way out of someone else’s league. Homeless people carry signs saying, “I don’t understand why I’m homeless and you’re not.” Co-workers, such as Mark’s secretary, Shelley (Tiny Fey), will say with a perfectly straight face, “I realize more and more everyday how overqualified I am for this position and how incompetent you are at yours.”
I think you get the idea. When Mark is fired, he finds himself with not enough money to pay his rent. He then goes to the bank to close his account and withdraw all $300. Only then does a sudden impulse surge through his brain–instead of $300, he asks for $800, the amount needed to pay rent. Since he lives in a world where everyone tells the truth, the fact that the system says he has only $300 must be a mechanical error. The clerk hands him his money in large bills, and he’s on his way. Now that he knows he’s capable of lying (although no one in this world uses that specific word since it’s an unknown concept), he sets about writing a fictional screenplay, which he tells everyone is a long lost historical document.
Now, here’s where it becomes a religious satire. During a genuinely touching scene, Mark tearfully tells his sick mother (Fionnula Flanagan) that death isn’t an eternity of nothingness, that everyone goes to a place of love, happiness, and mansions where friends and family will be waiting. Astonished doctors pressure him into revealing more about what happens after you die, and soon, the entire world looks to him as a messenger. His ultimate explanation: A man living in the sky controls our destinies, is responsible for all the good and bad things that happen to us, and will reward us after we die if we never do evil things. Confused residents are bogged down by details such as what constitutes an evil thing and how many evil things we’re allowed to do. It isn’t long before Mark realizes how horribly out of control his lying has become.
Tied in with this is a sweet yet perplexing love story, one in which Anna finds herself torn between Mark and a snide screenwriter named Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), who has openly hated Mark since day one. Initially, Anna refuses to have anything to do with Mark simply because he’s unattractive. She finds herself drawn to Brad because, as she puts it, he’s a good genetic match; their children will not be fat and have snub noses. Here’s the perplexing part: In this alternate reality, no one is capable of looking beyond a person’s physical appearance. Is it not just as truthful to like someone for who they are and not what they look like? Even in a world where no one lies, it’s still possible to meet someone who will say, “I want to be with you not because of your looks, but because you’re kind, funny, and intelligent.”
Fortunately, satire and sheer audacity make up for the film’s lack of plausible romantic situations. Gervais, with his biting humor and misanthropic persona, is well suited for this kind of material, and so is Garner, who adds such wonderful niceness to the story. Supporting performances from Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K., and Jonah Hill are decent, as are cameo appearances by Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephanie March, Edward Norton, and Stephen Merchant. It probably would have served the story better to take an agnostic approach–I feel that films adamant in confirming or denying the existence of God are too limited in scope (I exempt Carl Reiner’s wonderful “Oh, God!”). Regardless, I’m recommending “The Invention of Lying” for its humor, its dialogue, and its fearlessness.
– Chris Pandolfi (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)