The Invention of Lying Review

If you’re unfamiliar with Ricky Gervais’ brand of comedy (maybe you thought that his original Office is just the Steve Carrell version with a British accent), you probably wouldn’t expect The Invention of Lying to be a pointed dark comedy. It looks like a lighthearted laugh-out-loud fare, but Gervais’ style is not consistent laugh-out-loud. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and a little mean-spirited. He’s also more interested in making a satiric point, where the funny often overlaps with the sorrow. Which one is more overpowering is completely up to you.

Set in a world where lying never existed, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, who inexplicably just becomes the world’s first liar. So what’s different about the world if the human race never learned how to lie? What never existed? Four things, according to this movie.

1) Tact. In this alternate world, people don’t just not lie, they blurt out truths regardless of the situation. When Mark, and us, first meet his dream girl Anna (Jennifer Garner), her first line in the movie as she answers her door is, “I was masturbating.” 2) Advertising. A coke ad is just a spokesman telling you to buy it, while warning that it causes obesity. The slogan? “Coke - It’s famous.” 3) Movies. Mark is a screenwriter in a film industry that never makes up stories, just lectures of historical events. Since actors don’t exist, they have speakers instead. 4) The most important omission of all: religion. Without lies, religion never existed.

This movie could very well have been called The Invention of God.

Throughout the film, Mark takes the role of different prophets as he continually tells lies that sound closer and closer to what we recognize as Christianity. He becomes Moses when he writes a set of ten rules to follow on two Pizza Hut boxes. He becomes Jesus when he comforts strangers with fanciful stories. In what’s probably the film's most scathing moment, Gervais—along with co-writer and director Matthew Robinson—kicks Mormonism in the pants when they have Mark lying about finding a screenplay in the middle of nowhere that had been buried inside a chest for centuries. He actually wrote it himself, of course. Wink-Joseph wink-Smith.

Yet despite all this, the film isn't an attack on religion. No, honestly, it's not. In this movie’s world, religion starts in a brilliant scene where Mark’s elderly mother is on her death bed and weeps in fear at having to face “an eternity of nothingness.” Loving son that he is, Mark lies and tells his mother that a wonderful afterlife exists. It’s easily the most emotionally affecting moment in the entire film, and necessarily so for Gervais to show how enticing it is to believe that death isn’t the end.

The Invention of Lying’s pro-atheism text is like the anti-Bill Maher; it’s gentle and sympathizing. After warming us up to the comfort faith provides, when refuting it later in the story, Gervais drops any intellectual smugness in favor of taking the time to demonstrate why some people would choose to abandon that comfort. It’s the desire to make independent decisions and taking responsibility for them, rather than relying on an omniscient entity to keep them from doing bad things, as the climax of the film points out.

One way to convey this is to make it a romantic comedy. It has the disadvantage of a formulaic and predictable course, but not necessarily a serious drawback. Its cutesy romance goes in line with the film’s thesis: that faith is a white lie, not a malicious one. Gervais has constructed an elaborate white lie himself, by wrapping his satire in a saccharine shell, functioning more as a moral realization for the movie’s main character rather than an actual plot.

Dawkins by way of Frank Capra, if you will.

For the more perceptive bunch, the shell may be too sweet to stomach; but for those unaware, it helps with the medicine. Maybe that hinders the film from truly lasting as a thought-provoking piece of work, but it is effective in the way the clever script weaves the schmaltz and the bleakness together.

"The Invention of Lying" opens October 2, 2009 and is rated PG13. Comedy. Directed by Matthew Robinson, Ricky Gervais. Written by Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson. Starring Fionnula Flanagan, Jeffrey Tambor, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey.

Oct
06
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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