The Invention of Lying

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

(Touchstone) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Fionnula Flanagan, Jonah Hill, Stephanie March, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Imagine a world where honesty is the only policy, where lies are unknown and advertising is completely truthful. Movies are accounts of actual events whose scripts are read on-camera since nobody can conceive of pretending to be someone they aren’t.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) lives in just such a world. People are incapable of lying in this alternate universe so when Mark goes on a blind date with Anna (Garner), she informs him at the door to her apartment that she is disappointed that he isn’t more fit and handsome and that the likelihood of them having any sex that evening is remote at best.

Things go from bad to worse for Mark. His beloved mother (Flanagan) is in a nursing home (or, as it is aptly named, “A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die”) and he is about to be fired from his job as a screenwriter just as soon as his dithering boss (Tambor) can work up the courage to tell him, much to the bemusement of his chief rival Brad Kessler (Lowe) who hates him inexplicably, and his secretary (Fey) who looks down on him.

His landlord (Santiago-Hudson), having found out about Mark’s sudden change of employment, evicts him. Sad-sack Mark shuffles off to the bank to withdraw the $300 left to him so that he can rent a truck to load his things into. When he is informed by the teller that the system is down so she can’t look up his account to close it, Mark is struck by inspiration. He tells the teller he has $800 in his account and even though the system comes back up and says he only has $300, the teller gives him the larger amount. After all, human beings are far more reliable than machines.

Mark is ecstatic. He has discovered a game-changer, something that will completely turn around life as he knows it. He tries to tell his friends Greg (C.K.) and Phil (Hoffman) about it, but the words don’t even exist to convey telling something other than the truth. Mark experiments to see what he can accomplish; he tells a gorgeous blonde (March) that unless she has sex with him, the world will end – she believes him. He tells a cop (Norton) that his inebriated friend Greg that he has pulled over for drunk driving is in fact not drunk. He lets them off.

Things seem to be getting better for Mark. He gets his job back by writing a fictitious script he passes off as the truth, and becomes wealthy by scamming casinos after his script becomes a major hit. However, when he is overheard comforting his dying mother (Flanagan) with words about a beautiful afterlife instead of the oblivion that the people of this world have been bred to believe in, this sets off a chain reaction that will change the world in far more profound ways than even he can expect.

This is an intriguing premise that isn’t always pulled off well. It’s what Hollywood insiders call “high concept” which is what critics like to call “an idea without a plot.” The world Gervais envisions is not unlike our own, except nobody has a filter – they just blurt out whatever is on their minds, sort of like a world of six-year-olds. People are cruel to each other, sometimes intentionally.

This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to examine things in our world that depend on not telling the absolute truth, such as advertising, movies, dating and religion. The problem is they don’t really do much with the opportunity. The movie’s second half degenerates into a romantic comedy that is more about the relationship between Lowe, Garner and Gervais instead of really digging down further into the nature of religion, advertising and romance. The movie seems to be more on its game when its satire rather than romantic comedy. Yes, Mark’s words of comfort regarding an afterlife (in which everyone gets a mansion to live in) turn him into something of a prophet but that is almost an afterthought as Mark struggles to win the girl.

Gervais has made a career of playing buffoonish jerks who you love to hate but here he plays a buffoonish jerk that has a heart of gold. Once he discovers the happiness his lies bring, he walks around town whispering lies that bring smiles to the faces of the downtrodden. He knows he isn’t in Anna’s league but he is smitten by her anyway and can’t bring himself to tell her anything but the truth – mostly.

Garner has had an uneven film career since the days of “Alias” but this is one of her finer roles. She plays Anna as a woman who knows how attractive she is but not in a vain or self-centered way. Rather, she just knows she wants her children to have the best genes possible. Deep down she’s sweet and caring; like everyone in this reality, she’s merely judgmental and quite open about it.

The movie at its core is sweet-natured, just enough to leave me with the warm fuzzies leaving the theater. The scene between Mark and his mother in the hospital is highly moving. Unfortunately, the writers sabotage the movie with inane situations and the producers bring too many distracting cameos into the mix – such as Jason Bateman as a doctor and a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Guest as a script reader. The movie would have profited from a little more depth.

Although there is an implied premise that lying is the way to achieve everything you want in life, I thought the movie was more about knowing when to tell the truth and when it is better not to. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit about that particular lesson.

I enjoyed The Invention of Lying far more than Da Queen did, although I have to admit that Gervais seems incapable of reciting dialogue in anything but Gervais-speak – as in short, clipped sentence fragments. Like this. For everything. All his dialogue. Just like this. Right. In any case it makes for a pleasant diversion.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and abusive language but otherwise okay.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by Gervais.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a home video recommendation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bright Star

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