The Invention of Lying

Fiction - and the imagination that dreams it up - is essential to the smooth running of society, from the little white lies of social etiquette to the bigger questions that can’t be answered, can’t even be properly formulated, without making an imaginative jump from one point to another. Ricky Gervais’ second big-screen outing as male lead is a high-concept comedy, set in a horrible alternate world where everyone tells the truth.

In The Invention of Lying, Gervais plays Mark, a struggling screenwriter who is in danger of losing his job at the film studio where, in the absence of fiction, they make dreary historical documentaries, read out by actors sitting in armchairs. Even so, Mark is about to be fired. He has run out of things to write about. Broke and despairing, while standing at a bank counter one day, Mark has a brainwave. Instead of telling the cashier how much is actually in his account, he makes up a number. She hands over the cash without question, after all, Mark must be telling the truth. (Incidentally, this does not work in real life.)

So Mark tells another lie at another bank, and then another, and is soon flush with cash. Money and the confidence it bestows makes it a lot for Mark to woo the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner), who had previously considered him “genetically inferior”. Mark goes back to work and presents his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) with a new script, a ‘real-life’ epic, forgotten in the archives, about a 1st century between the massed armies of men, dinosaurs and space ninjas. Then Mark tells another story, this time to his mother (Fionnuala Flanagan) as she lies in a hospital bed. It’s a story about a wonderful place you go where you die, where all your family and friends are waiting and everything is great. But the yarn is overheard by doctors and spreads like wildfire. Nobody doubts that it couldn’t be true. Mark has accidentally invented God.

Like Moses on the mountain, Mark stand in front of a vast crowd of disciples and preaches a deviously complicated sermon about the rewards of living a good life. It’s a well-worked scene that plays to Gervais’ strengths as a stand-up comic, blustering double-takes and exaggerated flop-sweats, but like his tablet-wielding inspiration, Gervais is leading us into a narrative desert. His elevation to messiah, however inadvertent and unwanted, tires badly when syrupy emotion and redeeming messages start to fill the space that should contain jokes.

A world where people can only speak the truth is an interesting notion for comedy, but in fact Gervais’ characters don’t so much speak honestly as speak without self-censorship, which is not quite the same thing. It’s a narrative cheat that reduces the altitude of the high-concept but is less of an issue than Gervais casting himself once again, following Ghost Town, as an ordinary guy, touched by fate, who overcomes his misanthropy to use his powers to help those around him. If telling lies is a sin, vanity is too.

Opposite Gervais, Jennifer Garner overcomes the obvious lack of chemistry with her leading man to deliver a dryly amusing, well-rounded performance as the innocently offensive career woman with a heart of gold. There are funny moments too from an underused Tina Fey as Mark’s assistant and Rob Lowe as a slimy love-rival. Filling out the cast are comedians Jonah Hill and Louis C.K., as a suicidal neighbour and a boorish best-friend, but neither serves any purpose in the second half of the film other than to provide Mark with someone to save. With a tighter script and better direction, all the good ideas in The Invention of Lying might have coalesced into something special. As it stands, it’s just OK. Honest.


ColmB said...

Wasn't a fan of Gervais and Garner but loved Edward Norton,Jonah Hill,Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Louis C.K. and the rest.

Have my own Review here anyways!!

Rocío Márquez said...

It`s a pity we can't see it in Spain...