This Is Just an OK Movie
The Invention of Lying imagines a world where no one can sugarcoat the truth.
After you've seen The Invention of Lying, come back and listen to our brutally honest Spoiler Special discussion:
Anyone who loves Ricky Gervais can only witness his entry into Hollywood with consternation. His first feature film, Ghost Town, was one of the best mainstream romantic comedies of 2008—but given the size of Gervais' talent, not to mention the sorry state of contemporary romantic comedy, that's not saying much. Gervais, the co-creator and star of the BBC's The Office—one of the funniest, saddest, wisest TV comedy series of all time—is capable of taking on questions larger than "Who gets to kiss the girl?" (Even when that girl is as kissable as Ghost Town's Téa Leoni, the Carole Lombard of our millennium.) Gervais' new film, The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros.), which, unlike Ghost Town, he co-wrote and co-directed, grapples with some of the biggest questions of all: Where did mankind come from? What happens after we die? And how should we treat one another during our time on Earth? Despite the ambitious scope of its premise, this confounding, disappointing and, in the end, depressing movie is content to devote 80 percent of its screen time to wondering who gets to kiss the girl—a girl who, this time around, is played by the considerably blander Jennifer Garner. (Garner's character, Anna, is also one of the most undeserving objects of affection in recent movie memory, but more on that later.) Gervais himself sets up the film's premise in a brusque opening voice-over: Right, then—imagine a world that's exactly like our own, except that human beings have never developed the ability to lie. Everything that comes into their heads, they immediately say aloud, which renders all social interaction both more revealing and more rude. "Please come in. I was just upstairs masturbating," Anna announces cheerily as Gervais' character, Mark Bellison, shows up for their first blind date. A world without lies is also, necessarily, a world without fiction; in this universe, "movies" are just two-hour shots of a guy in an armchair reciting facts from history. Mark is a screenwriter for Lecture Films, a company that churns out these droning productions, but he's both miserable and unsuccessful at it. He's been assigned the 14th century, and the Black Plague just isn't selling tickets. * The day Mark is fired, his landlord threatens to evict him unless he comes up with $800 for the rent. And just like that, an idea comes to Mark at the bank window: Why not exaggerate when informing the teller of the amount in his bank account? With a CSI-style zoom into the interior of Mark's brain, human history changes, and the ability to lie is born. The comic possibilities opened up by this premise are infinite. And a few of them get thoroughly explored: There are some good gags involving falsehood-free advertising ("Pepsi: When They're Out of Coke") and non-euphemistic signage (Mark's aged mother lives in "A Sad Place for Homeless Old People"). In the story's most daring (and commercially risky) gambit, Mark singlehandedly invents the concept of religion: As his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) lies on her deathbed, he assures her she's going to a beautiful place where she'll live forever with "the man in the sky." The scene is played as straight drama, and it's shockingly bleak, with Gervais breaking down in real tears as his mother speaks of her fear of facing "an eternity of nothingness." The patently un-Hollywoodian message is clear: Old Mrs. Bellison is right. We are alone in an eternity of nothingness, and religion is a palliative story we tell ourselves to ease the pain of the truth. In movie's weird and intermittently hilarious middle section, Mark copes with the aftermath of becoming the world's first prophet. After word spreads about the incredible new "man in the sky," Mark stays up all night scribbling out a Ten Commandments-style moral code. But the literal-minded crowd gathered outside his house nitpicks the new rules to death. This group debate about ethics is the film's best scene by far, reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian or some of George Carlin's classic atheist rants. But shortly thereafter, like your funniest and smartest college friend settling for a subpar spouse, The Invention of Lying breaks your heart by giving itself over to a noxious romantic plot involving Anna, the Jennifer Garner character who treated Mark like crap in that opening first date. Here's the problem with Anna, one that seems to have inexplicably sailed past the screenwriters' notice: She always treats Mark like crap, and she is a vain, shallow, thoroughly despicable human being. In scene after scene, we listen to her worry aloud that, fun as Mark is to spend time with, he's an overweight, funny-looking schlub who's unworthy to sire her children. Blurted out once at a first meeting, this could have worked as a joke about the awkwardness of unintentional honesty. Repeated ad infinitum, it starts to sound like eugenics. When Anna falls in with Mark's preening colleague, Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), veterans of the romantic-comedy genre heave a sigh of good riddance and start scanning the premises for the smart, kind, slightly-less-conventionally- gorgeous woman who's sure to be Mark's true love … right? Wrong. As we realize that Mark really is continuing to pursue this vapid ninny (and that the Carlin-esque anti-clerical jokes have run dry), there's an unmistakable sinking sensation. In this movie, as in life, Ricky Gervais is a brilliantly gifted innovator—shouldn't he set his sights higher than an eternity of being condescended to by Jennifer Garner? He deserves better, and so does his audience. Slate V: The critics on The Invention of Lying and other new releases:
Correction, Oct. 6, 2009: This review originally implied the bubonic plague happened in the 13th century. It was in the 14th century. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)