The Invention of Lying

Director: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe and Tina Fey
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 99 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Sexual references and coarse language

Atheists will love The Invention of Lying. Religious people may not. Ricky Gervais, responsible for the brilliant British TV programs The Office and Extras, has collaborated with newcomer Matthew Robinson to make a fantasy comedy that is about as anti-religion as you could get. Not that it isn’t funny in places, and not that it isn’t a clever idea — but the further the film goes the more bitter it becomes in its mockery of religious belief, which strips it of most of its comic goodwill.

The premise teems with possibilities. It is set in an alternative contemporary world where lying is unknown because humans lack the gene that prompts them to tell untruths. Further, they are compelled to say exactly what is on their mind at all times. “What an ugly child,” says a woman as she peers into a pram. Involuntary truthfulness rules, and it seems to faze no one because that is the way things have always been. On the whole, it seems an altogether better world than ours because disputes don’t occur.

We meet Mark Bellison (Gervais), a lowly screenwriter at Lecture Films, on his way to pick up his dinner date, the glamorous Anna (Jennifer Garner). In swift succession she tells him she is not looking forward to going out with him, she finds him unattractive and he lacks the position and financial wherewithal to be a suitable mate. He, in turn, allows that she will not like the restaurant he has chosen because it isn’t expensive enough, but it’s all he can afford.

Mark is crestfallen but accepting. Then he is fired from his job and evicted from his apartment for lack of the $800 rent. When he goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300 to pay removalists, the teller tells him the system is down. How much did he want to withdraw? It occurs to him (and this is when he invents lying) to ask for $800. Just then the system comes back online and the teller can see his account is $500 short. But — this being a world in which lying is unknown — she doesn’t hesitate to hand over the $800 he requested. “The computer must have made a mistake,” she concludes.

Mark soon realises that telling lies to the gullible can give him considerable advantage in many situations. And when his mother is dying he soothes her fears by concocting a story that people don’t really die, they go to an afterlife where they are reunited with all their friends and live happily forever more.

Trouble is, he is overheard spinning the yarn about an eternity of joy, and the story spreads like wildfire. Besieged by crowds wanting to hear the good news and demanding to know how he knows these things, he blurts out that a Man Who Lives in the Sky told him. To reinforce the fiction, he hastily composes rules for living allegedly told him by the celestial being. (With no stone tablets at hand, he scribbles them on the back of Pizza Hut boxes.) If you do bad things, then you go to a bad place after you die. But you get three chances before being disqualified (“just like baseball,” says someone in the crowd). And no, a bad hairstyle does not qualify as a bad deed.

No sooner has he promulgated his rules, he runs into trouble explaining them (yes, the Man in the Sky does cause tsunamis and other disasters) and he has to back-pedal furiously on some points. But because lying is unknown, people accept his Man in the Sky, controller of everything that happens, as a reality, and Mark takes to wearing sunshades and becomes a global celebrity, even letting his hair and beard grow for a time in imitation of the popular image of a certain Galilean circa AD 30.

The notion of a world without lies is an intriguing one, and some figments of the imagination of Gervais and Robinson are delightful — Mark’s employer, for example. Because lying is non-existent, fictional screenplays are unheard of, so Lecture Films produces nothing but dry accounts of factual events read to the camera by historians. Mark’s department is stories of the 1300s, and he is being fired because his scripts are depressing. In his defence, Mark asks what did they expect when the only thing that happened in that century was the Black Plague?

Gervais is a fine exponent of dry, understated wit. And his screen persona, with his hesitations and uncertainties, can enliven otherwise bland dialogue. In this case, however, he takes what could have worked as a television half-hour and tries to spin it out to feature length. He doesn’t really have an ending, and the last-minute switch to sentimentality is something of a cop-out.

Jennifer Garner (wife of Ben Affleck) is a pleasing presence as Anna, whom Mark still loves even when she rejects him in favour of his sworn rival (a nicely oily Rob Lowe). Dotted throughout the movie are cameo appearances by the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman and Gervais’s collaborator on The Office and Extras, Stephen Merchant, which is fun for people who like to spot these things.

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