The Invention of Lying furthers Ricky Gervais’ notable transformation from biting television satirist to lovable mainstream lug. For the second film in a row, after last year’s criminally little seen Ghost Town, he reveals his caustic SOB persona to be little more than a cover for a big vulnerable heart. Though both movies adapt outrageous high concept premises — in the prior film Gervais’ dentist could communicate with ghosts, in this one he’s the only human to have discovered how to tell a lie — they share a strong current of redemptive sweetness that speaks to the actor’s classical Hollywood soul.
Though Ghost Town came from filmmaker David Koepp, Gervais co-directs and co-writes The Invention of Lying with first-timer Matthew Robinson, a stranger before producer Lynda Obst handed him Robinson’s first draft. So it can be seen as a clearer indication of his filmmaking interests. In its transformation of deeply cynical, downtrodden material, with its overwhelmingly negative view of humanity at its basest, into an uplifting story of an emotional triumph the film crystallizes the comic’s apparent desire to emulate Frank Capra wherever possible.
Set in a world not unlike our own, save for humanity’s failure to discover the ability to fabricate things, it’s about the predictably miserable, slovenly Mark Bellison and his search for happiness. He hasn’t found it in the condescending attitude of longtime crush Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), who likes him fine but can’t stand the thought of copulating with a pudgy man with an unshapely nose. He toils away miserably as a 13th century researcher for Lecture Films, which produces movies of actors reading history, the only logical form of filmed entertainment in such a world. Things start to change when one day, for reasons he never quite understands, Mark purposefully misstates the value of his bank account.
Some could argue against the old-fashioned sensibility at the picture’s core by noting that it ultimately gets around to the “incendiary” suggestion that religion might be considered a figment of man’s imagination. Yet it handles that notion in the same vein as the rest of the story: gently and affectionately. Though Mark develops an elaborate deception involving a “man in the sky” he does so not out of malice, not as a power grabbing ploy, but as a way to comfort his dying mother. Similarly, when he discovers his newfound ability greatly impacts his ability to snag women — with everything said taken at face value, nothing will get someone to bed with you faster than if the fate of the world depends on it — he doesn’t act on his most lecherous instincts. The picture toys with the proverbial line in several other instances, but the adherence to making Mark as likable as possible keeps it from being crossed.
If the movie never becomes the nasty black comedy it could have been — Mark’s gift makes him unhappy and never lessens his pining for Anna — it still has several clever humorous conceits and characters worth caring about. The Lecture Films concept serves as a logical outgrowth of the inherent animalistic need to be entertained, even in a world without escapism. At their best, the petty rivalries and caustic putdowns of the office scenes, including the development of Mark’s rivalry with his genetic superior Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), constitute a sort of bizarre world version of The Office. Some of the more frenzied internal monologues, which come out at awkward intervals (i.e. during a date) have an admirably unembellished directness to them and the actors pull off the difficult feat of convincingly reacting to the vomiting of thoughts and feelings therein.
Still, despite the epistemological trappings The Invention of Lying functions as little more than the story of a lonely boy who’s desperate for a girl and willing to go to great lengths to get her. The speculative premise is just the conduit for the picture’s repetition of the oldest story in the book. But it’s got Gervais, so good at these earnest put-upon portrayals, Garner, who has somehow managed to retain her girl next door appeal, and supporting performances from the likes of Jonah Hill and Tina Fey. The emotions feel earned and the blending of tones recalls Lubitsch and Wilder. One could do much worse.
The Upside: The movie demonstrates an ingrained classical sense of the proper mixture of heart and humor to be put in a story that earns its positive vibes.
The Downside: The satire could have been sharper, and the movie never really goes to the dark places the material sometimes demands.
On the Side: Matthew Robinson wrote the first draft of the screenplay with Gervais in mind but he’d never met him before. Producer Lynda Obst showed it to the comedian and he was reportedly sold by page 10.