The Invention of Lying (2009): United States – directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language and sexual dialogue
I love Ricky Gervais. Ever since he and Stephen Merchant created “The Office” (there’s only one version, I don’t know what you’re talking about) I’ve been a fan of his self-deprecating humor. “Extras” showed that it is possible to have celebrities skewer themselves and be funny, while also scathingly attacking the Hollywood system. For the same reason I laugh particularly hard whenever Gervais presents an award at one of the big awards shows.
When Ghost Town was announced I was afraid that Gervais’ cynicism would be neutered, but I found the film to be engaging and generally enjoyable. So, when the opportunity arose to see The Invention of Lying I didn’t turn it down. Perhaps I should have.
We begin in a world without lying, which apparently means that everyone blurts out whatever’s on their minds. There are some amusing situations involving Mark Bellison’s (Gervais) first date with his long-time crush Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner). She knows he is way beneath her, and lets him know as much. He suffers under her scathing honesty as only Ricky Gervais, in the great British tradition of maintaining dignity, can.
Mark is a lowly script writer and is about to be fired. He is short and fat and has a pug-nose. He lives in an apartment by himself, his mom’s in a nursing home, and his life, which is already miserable, is about to get much worse. Until, that is, he discovers he can do something no one else can: tell a lie. He still has a conscience, though, so scamming a gorgeous woman into bed with him is something that he backs out of. He also can’t trick Anna into loving him, because then it wouldn’t count. He does, however, invent religion and consequently discovers that the world is a whole lot more complicated than he originally believed.
It would appear that this concept could make a fantastic and hilarious movie. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The movie progresses down the path toward its inevitable conclusion rather clumsily. The pacing is off as it shifts from the set-up of the world to Mark’s discovery of lying. The real meat of the plot doesn’t even begin until halfway through, when he invents religion and a man in the clouds. Along the way there are a fair number of amusing moments, and I did laugh a lot. Most of the time I laughed at Gervais’ delivery and timing, because he is quite funny. Unfortunately, the film runs out of material but somehow keeps running along. It is far too long at 99 minutes and even skips a perfectly acceptable ending point at maybe the 75th or 80th minute.
The movie is a bit rebellious in how it treats religion. No other Hollywood movie could be this atheistic and get away with it. Other than that, though, it plays firmly by the rules of a romantic comedy. I was impressed, however, at how many high profile cameos Gervais secured for the film. Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, and Rob Lowe all have significant roles, while Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Bateman, and Ed Norton contribute entertaining bits. My favorite was when Stephen Merchant and “Extras” co-star Shaun Williamson appear in a flashback. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the theater laughing at their part.
The movie isn’t a total failure, but it does have lots of problems. It has trouble consistently defining lying and distinguishing between lying and being quiet instead of voicing an opinion. I got the feeling that Ricky Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson came up with some great ideas for a comedy, but the entire concept got caught up in the Hollywood processing machinery and extruded into an audience-friendly snack. I still love Ricky Gervais but feel that The Invention of Lying is an unfortunate misstep in his comedic career.