The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

New Releases for the Week of July 8, 2016


The Secret Life of PetsTHE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

(Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Albert Brooks, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper, Eric Stonestreet. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

From the humans that brought you Despicable Me comes this charming animated feature about what goes on with the pets in a Manhattan apartment building while the owners are off at work and school. For Max, a terrier whose whole life revolves around his owner, things take a turn for the worse when she brings home a new dog who Max simply doesn’t get along with. When the two find themselves alone on the streets of the city, they must work together not just to get home by dinner time but to thwart the evil plans of a maniacal bunny to turn the pets of the world against their owners.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action and some rude humor)

The Dog Lover

(ESX) James Remar, Allison Paige, Lea Thompson, Jayson Blair. A beautiful young girl who is committed to the cause of animal rights joins an organization that lobbies for better laws that protect animals and conducts animal rescues. She is given an assignment to infiltrate a suspected puppy mill, but falls for the charismatic owner and realizes that there are shades of grey in this game. Based on a true story.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief disturbing images and some language)

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

(20th Century Fox) Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Adam DeVine. Two brothers, hard partier frat boy types, are given an ultimatum by their family; to bring nice girls as dates to their sister’s upcoming wedding in Hawaii or be barred from attending. Not knowing any nice girls, they take to social media and daytime talk shows to find the right girls. Unfortunately the girls they find have an agenda of their own.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some graphic nudity)

Sultan

(Yash Raj) Marko Zaror, Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma, Randeep Hooda. Although shot in a documentary style, this is actually the story of a fictional wrestler who rose to be one of the most popular athletes in India. After falling from grace, he mounted a comeback as a coach and then, again as a wrestler defying all the odds as he has done his entire career.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Trumbo (2015)


Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, John Getz, Madison Wolfe, James DuMont, J.D. Evermore, Allyson Guay. Directed by Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was once the highest paid in Hollywood; he wrote classic movies and was considered one of the most intelligent writers in the business and racked up a couple of Oscars to boot. However, even with all that he is better known for one thing; being a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo (Cranston) was one of the leading lefties in Tinseltown, espousing pro-Union an pro-Socialist causes. While he had joined the Communist party in 1943, he wasn’t what you’d call a hard-liner; he was always more of a Socialist than a Communist, but “socialist” was even worse at the time, as the Nazis stylized themselves as Socialists. When unions went out on strike, he would never ever cross a picket line.

But the times, they were a’changing. Soviet Russia was no longer a war ally and the Cold War was beginning in earnest. Washington was beginning to look at Communist elements in our midst and in Hollywood especially. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, took an interest in Trumbo because of his outspoken support for leftist causes and of course his membership in the Communist.Party also made him a target. The vitriol of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) who saw Trumbo as the embodiment of the enemy was leveled on Trumbo and she campaigned vigorously with the studio heads to get him fired, particularly Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) who is Trumbo’s boss. Once he is slapped with a contempt of Congress charge however, Mayer has the ammunition to let him go.

And thus begins the blacklist as Trumbo and nine other writers and directors who refuse to testify in front of HUAC are denied employment for any of the major studios. Trumbo scrapes ekes out a living by writing movies and then having non-blacklisted “front” for them; that is, putting his scripts under their name and taking a part of the compensation for it. It is in this way that he wrote Roman Holiday for which he received an Oscar, although it was Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who received credit and picked up the Oscar (a statuette was delivered to Trumbo’s widow posthumously).

Trumbo also wrote B movies for the schlockmeister Frank King (Goodman) and his brother Hymie (Root) including The Brave One, written under a pseudonym and also an Oscar winner (this one he received while he was still alive). However, in order to keep up the sheer volume of work he needed in order to meet the demands of the King Brothers and of course keep his family fed and housed and clothed, he had to work an enormous amount of time, employing his family particularly daughter Chloe (Fanning) as a kind of personal assistant while his wife Cleo (Lane) held things together. The toll on his relationships within the family would become nearly intolerable. It also sundered friendships as his friend Arlen Hird (C.K.) disagreed strongly with Trumbo’s methods while actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) found that his own career had been torpedoed by allegations and was put in the horrible position of either naming friends to HUAC or risk seeing his career end in flames.

Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for the title role and I can tell you flat-out that the nomination was richly deserved – in fact I like his performance better than winner Leonardo di Caprio’s. He captures a lot of the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms from the clipped speech, the hunched over posture and the witticisms along with the look; his trademark moustache and cigarette holder. He looks the part and quite frankly, he dominates the screen here.

The script captures the paranoia and despair of the time. The conversations between Trumbo and Arlen Hird are really the heart of the picture, setting up the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism (again, Trumbo wasn’t really a true communist) and questioning the motives of his crusade. A speech near the end of the film is an emotional moment that underlines the true cost of the blacklist and of other events like it.

I have to admit though that I was extremely disappointed by some of the historical inaccuracies here. While I don’t mind using Hird as a fictitious amalgam of real people, I do object to writer John McNamara characterizing a particular character here as naming names to HUAC when historically he did not; there were plenty of real people who did supply names to the witch hunters and there’s no need to drag a person’s name through the mud unnecessarily. A fictitious character could even have been created to play the same role but the way that this was done is something I really don’t approve of. I don’t mind fudging history for the sake of dramatic impact, but I do mind tarnishing the reputation of someone who didn’t earn it. While Hopper who is portrayed here as a crude, egocentric and vindictive woman – all things that contemporary accounts support – and her descendents can’t complain of the narrative here, the family of that one character has grounds to object. Sometimes dramatic license shouldn’t trump sensitivity to those close to the people in question.

The movie looks pretty damn good, with some sweet locations (New Orleans substituting for golden age Hollywood) and some wonderfully framed shots (Trumbo’s first film credit reflected in the lens of his glasses near the end of the film). The ensemble cast is terrific head to toe. There are also some powerful moments like the aforementioned speech near the end and the funeral for one of the main characters. There is emotional resonance here as we see the price that people paid for the zealotry of others.

That this sort of witch hunting goes on today isn’t lost on this reviewer. We may not necessarily be singling out communists for discrimination, but there are certainly other groups we have become hysterical about (*cough* Muslims *cough*) to the point of ridiculousness, but I’m sure they don’t find it very ridiculous. Trumbo works as a look at a dark part of our past but it also serves as a warning about our present; we are either true to our principles or we aren’t. You may say what you want about Dalton Trumbo whether you agree with his politics or not, but he stood up for what he believed in because he genuinely felt that to not do so was to betray his country. I’m not going to judge anyone on their stance because in the end they all believed that they were right and were doing right by America. Maybe that’s the excuse of some who are doing the same exact thing; that doesn’t mean however we shouldn’t stand up to those who operate out of fear, rather than displaying strength.

REASONS TO GO: Bryan Cranston nails it. Captures the paranoia of the times.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary factual errors.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair share of profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first non-comedy film to be directed by Roach.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2007)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2015


The Good DinosaurTHE GOOD DINOSAUR

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn. Directed by Peter Sohn

In a world where the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs missed the Earth, an Apatosaurus named Arlo who as the runt of the litter was always frightened of everything in the world around him, is forced to make friends with a feral human boy named Spot. Alone and far from home in a dangerous world, the two must work together to make it home.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for peril, action and thematic elements)

Bone Tomahawk

(RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Sean Young. After a small town in the Old West is attacked by savage cannibalistic cave dwellers (try and say that five times fast), a grizzled sheriff leads a dysfunctional posse after them to rescue the captives they took from the town. Little did they realize that the cannibals were far more ruthless and resourceful than they could have imagined – and that the rescue mission has become a fight for survival.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Brooklyn

(Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters. A woman in the 1950s emigrates from Ireland to the United States to find herself a new life. At first beset by pangs of homesickness, she begins to ease into her situation, buoyed by a promising romance. However when personal matters require her to return to Ireland, she finds herself forced to choose between two lives – one in her homeland, one in her new home. Scripted by Nick Hornby.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)

Creed

(MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad. The son of the late boxing champion Apollo Creed never knew his father, who died in the ring before he was born. Angry at life, he only feels comfortable in the boxing ring. Knowing that he needs the kind of training that he can’t get just anywhere, he seeks out his father’s one-time rival and closest friend Rocky Balboa, who sees something in the young man that Creed doesn’t see in himself. But Rocky has a deadly battle of his own to wage and young Adonis Creed will be taking on a foe that may be more than he can overcome. Jordan in the title role is reunited with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality)

Legend

(Universal) Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston. In the 1960s the Kray Brothers were the most notorious and feared gangsters in London. Their story, previously chronicled in The Krays starring Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet, benefits from an Oscar-caliber performance by Tom Hardy – as both Kray twins. The movie will be opening on more screens in two weeks.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village (opening wider December 11)

Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material)

Tamasha

(UTV) Deepika Padukone, Ranbir Kapoor, Javed Sheikh, Faraaz Servaia. A tourist and a nomad living on an island near France fall for one another as they organize “tamashas” all over the island.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Trumbo

(Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Diane Lane. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is called in before the House Un-American Activities Commission to testify about his beliefs and to incriminate other colleagues who might be leaning too far to the left for American tastes as of 1947. Instead, he stands up against Congress and is sent to prison before being blacklisted. Instead, he perseveres and becomes an American hero in the process.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Victor Frankenstein

(20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Charles Dance. A reimagining of the Mary Shelley classic, as a medical doctor wishing to conquer death becomes obsessed to the point of madness. Only his faithful assistant Igor can save him from his own deteriorating mental state and from his horrifying creation.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction)

American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

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