The Invention of Lying
While this broadly drawn rom com with added gimmick is far from the most inspired concept – its little more than a reverse Liar Liar and something that ten years ago would have surely been earmarked as a throwaway vehicle for Jim Carey – it does serve to highlight just how much a comedy script can benefit from being written with a specific comedian in mind. Set in a world identical to our own where no one ever lies, The Invention of Lying is tailor-made for Ricky Gervais, literally, with Gervais having purchased the concept from debutant Matthew Robinson before retooling it to suit his comic style and delivery.
So while the actor and material are in perfect sync, the flipside is that the move has been tailor-made for Ricky Gervais! So if that particular brand of embarrassment comedy leaves you cold, or the trademark unfinished sentences punctuated by that exasperated sigh drive you crazy, then don’t even bother. It’s also a film of two halves, but we’ll get to that later.
Adding another name to his resume of professional losers, Gervais takes the role of Mark Bellison, a failed screenwriter. We say screenwriter, but he is really more of a historical transcriber since no lying means no fiction and movies come in the form of history texts essentially being read straight to camera. Mark’s in charge of the thirteenth century, but his texts arte boring and, as his secretary (Tina Fey, one of many star cameos) seems to delight in reminding him, he’s on the verge of being fired.
You see, not only does nobody lie in this world, but they’re actually compelled to tell the truth, with much of the comedy simply coming from people simply blurting out whatever they’re thinking at any given moment. When Mark arrives to pick up his date, Anna (Jennifer Garner, both charming and self-deprecating), she answers the door in a fluster declaring: “Hi! Sorry, I was just masturbating,” to which he replies, “That makes me think of your vagina,” before Anna adds, “Now that I’ve seen you, I’m pessimistic about our date tonight.” So, rejected and pissed off Mark inexplicably blurts out the first ever lie and realizing it’s power sets about turning his life around.
Now the romantic comedy is a formula as old as time, and in film it has gradually evolved into a realm that only beautiful people may populate. There is already a large contingent out there that believes that Seth Rogen has no business fronting a romantic comedy, at least from a physical point of view. In a move that could either be construed as clever or insulting depending on your view (and your own physical appearance) Gervais displays acute awareness that he is no Gerrard Butler and adjust the story accordingly. So while Anna likes Mark and enjoys his company, she doesn’t want to get serious because together they’d “have fat little kids with snub noses.”
Of course simply having Mark lie to Anna and tell her their kids would be gorgeous is breaking the rom com rules, and so, at a narrative impasse, the film strides out in a sorely misguided new direction for its second act, devolving into an uninspired slight at religion and faith. Causing a media sensation after doctors and patients at a hospital overhear Mark comforting his dying mother by telling her that she’s going to a magical place for all eternity he essentially invents God, scribbles down ten really important rules on a couple of pizza boxes, and becomes a reluctant prophet.
So from the promise of an imaginatively spontaneous cringe-fest we’re gifted the shockingly lazy creation, formation, and subsequent disillusionment with a quasi-Christian faith – complete with Gervais in full beard, white robe, and sandals – in about forty minutes. It’s perhaps not the worst idea in the world, except that the jokes are simply not that funny and the film is way too reliant on the novelty of big name cameos (Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender; Edward Norton as a bent copper – which in a world where everyone tells the truth just makes no sense when you think about it) to elevate the lackluster shtick. It’s also unclear as to what exactly if anything he’s saying; that belief in an all-powerful being creates as many problems as it eliminates? Okay, and?
When you consider that this is the first time Gervais has decided not to work with his longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant, it only makes you wonder if perhaps his sharp sense of refinement, sorely missing here, is perhaps the key ingredient to the pair’s success. It’s also perhaps the only romantic comedy in history without a single kiss. A fat guy from Reading as a Christ figure is fine it would seem, but the idea of him making out with Jennifer Garner was apparently considered a bit silly.
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K. Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Rickey Gervais and Matthew Robinson
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.