A film review by Craig J. Koban October 7, 2009

Rank:  #17


2009, R, 93 mins.

Mark: Ricky Gervais / Anna Jennifer Garner / Frank Jonah Hill / Anthony Jeffrey Tambor / Martha Fionnula Flanagan / Brad Rob Lowe / Shelley Tina Fey

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Ricky Gervais’ THE INVENTION OF LYING is one of the funniest comedies and most cheekily subversive satires I’ve seen in a long while.  What it deceptively does is not easy.  It sets itself up with an ingenious premise ripe for hilarity (what would the world be like if human beings never developed the gene required for telling lies of any kind) and then morphs into a fairly standard rom-com and then, to my amazement, becomes a jolting, radical, and implacably uproarious satire on the nature of organized religion.  

The film, in essence, does a bravura job of completely easing audience members into expecting one type of film and then, half way through, audaciously – and rather bravely – changes thematic gears altogether and becomes something philosophical and intriguing.  What is so ultimately compelling about THE INVENTION OF LYING is that Gervais goes the distance to make us laugh, to be sure, but he also uses all of his exquisitely timed pratfalls and verbal gags as a framework to comment on how people use fictions to overcome their own fears and anxieties about the unknown.  Few comedies as of late have been so simultaneously hysterical and contemplative.  

If anything, THE INVENTION OF LYING proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that its Brit import star is one of the leading comic minds of this generation.  Gervais more than earned his laugh-out-loud rep with two of the finest television sitcoms of all-time in THE OFFICE (not the US version…plllleeeaaasse) and EXTRAS.  After writing, directing, and staring in most of the episodes of those original BBC shows, Gervais made a splash in one of the most disappointingly overlooked comedies of last year in GHOST TOWN, where he played a socially stunted and cantankerous schlub who had a near death experience and began to see and communicate with the dead.  That film highlighted the comedian as a curious new type of everyman charlatan: He’s short, kind of tubby without being obese, and wholeheartedly lacks leading man looks.  However, he makes up for all of that in how much of a master he is at playing naturalist, mordant comedy that involves personas that traverse between social awkwardness and downright humiliation.  No other recent comedian has done a better job of making oneself look like such an unmitigated pompous fool like Gervais has. 

In THE INVENTION OF LYING – marking his big screen directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with newcomer Matthew Robinson – Gervais tones down his character’s level of overt self-mortification and instead plays a more sympathetic stooge that suffers from living in the wrong universe at the wrong time.  His character, Mark, lives in world where people have no ability whatsoever to lie, so when he picks up a blind date that is far out of his league in the beginning of the film (Anna, played by the fetching and wonderfully bubbly Jennifer Garner), she responds as we expect her to when she sees that Ricky Gervais is her date: She tells him – in one of the film’s many side-splitting and matter-of-fact dialogue exchanges – that she finds him too fat, too short, and not handsome enough to be worth her time.  She also promises him up front that they will never date again, that there will be no date sex, let alone a good night kiss, and that he would make the least decent genetic match for her in terms of producing attractive babies.  She also infers to him that she’d rather be masturbating at home than going out with him 

Like I said: this world is brutally honest! 

Of course, this is just the beginning of the film’s many hilarious scenes involving this very literal-minded society.  When Mark and Anna hit the restaurant even the waiter is insanely frank with his comments (“Hello, I’ll be your waiter and I am really embarrassed about doing this job”).  He also acknowledges, much to Mark's chagrin, that Anna is so pretty that Mark has no chance with her and that her beauty makes him feel even more embarrassed by his job.  The couple's night ends rather badly, at least for Mark, seeing as she reminds him that there is no possibility of them going out again. 

Mark’s work life is not much better:  He is a movie screenwriter, but the movies in this alternate earth are not like our movies.  Remember: no one can lie here, so there technically cannot be actors (because by playing people they are not they are essentially lying) and films cannot be fiction (another form of lying).  In a brilliant move, Gervais portrays the films of this world with a stark simplicity: they just feature talking heads reciting history (not lies, but the truth).  Unfortunately, Mark’s recent script for The Black Death-era of history has proven to be a real downer (no kidding) and he faces much pressure from a younger hotshot-writer working in his office, Brad (played with a sniveling level of contemptuous ooze by Rob Lowe), whose more upbeat and entertaining films are all the buzz.  Mark fears that he’ll be fired, and everyone in the office thinks the same (an exchange he has with his secretary - played in a brief, but very funny, cameo by Tina Fey - conveys this) and even Brad chimes in: “I just wanted to let you know that you’re fat, you have a pudgy nose, and I’ve hated every minute of the five years I’ve worked for you.” 

Regrettably for Mark, he is fired and is very short on the $800 rent payment he needs to pay to fend off eviction from his landlord.  When he goes to the bank teller something…well…unexplained happens within his brain.  Instead of asking the clerk for the last $500 he has in his account, he asks for…$800.  Of course, since lying does not exists, the teller believes that the $500 listed on his account balance must be an error and she quickly gives the stupefied Mark $800.  What he does not know – because the words lie, lying, and so forth are not in the cultural vernacular – is that he has told the first lie in recorded human history.  With his unbelievably new mental power, Mark believes he has found his meal ticket in life. 

Now, I thought that, from this point, THE INVENTION OF LYING would go down a fairly preordained path of being a goofy farce and comedy of errors, but the cunning originality of the film comes from where he takes this material next.  Mark goes to visit his mother (at a building that has a marquee that states "A Sad Place Where Old Homeless People Come To Die") and she is on her deathbed.  To ease her pain of passing on, Mark uses his newly acquired gift of bending the truth to tell her that dying is not the end.  In fact, he tells her that when she dies she will go to a place where millions of dead people go that will be their dream utopia…complete with your own mansion.  His mother, as a result of learning this new “made up” information, dies peacefully and happily.  Right after she does, though, the attending doctor and nurses look at Mark like he is some sort of messiah.  “Go on," they plead with him, “what else happens after you die?  We need to know.” 

Now, since there is no lying, everyone – and I mean everyone – believes Mark’s assertion about the afterlife.  Word soon spreads and a media and public circus arrives at the front lawn of his apartment.  Realizing that these crazed people will never leave him alone, he decides that he must make up something – and fast – to appease this zealot-like enclave.  What occurs next is one of the most memorable scenes of any film of the year.  After he has jotted down his ideas onto the back of two Pizza Hut boxes (“These ideas should be writing down on something,” he deadpans), he goes to the crowd and in a very Moses-esque manner reveals to all of them that there is a “man in the sky” that controls everything and everything and that he has given him ten rules that all humans should live by.  Everyone, if they live life well and just, will spend eternity with “him.” 

Now, these people – who believe everything that Mark reveals – still ask plausible questions: What’s the man in the sky look like?  How far in the sky does he live?  How does a man live in the clouds, anyways?  And…is he responsible for everything?  One troubled woman asks about why “the man in the sky” caused her cancer, whereas another man asks why any all-powerful man would cause so much suffering (at one point, many start to shout “F- - k the man in the sky!”).  Realizing that he’s created more problems that he thought, Mark placates the crowd – which is becoming more mob-like by the minute upon hearing his odd answers to their queries – and reasons with them that, yeah, the man in the sky causes suffering, but he is also responsibly for all of the best things in the world too.  Everyone soon calms down. 

I will not spoil much more of THE INVENTION OF LYING, other than to say that it becomes an incredibly compelling conundrum for the viewer: Is the film trying to be spitefully sacrilegious about God and faith or is it just trying to send up the whole notion of the troubling grey areas inherent with organized religion?  Moreover, is this just a cheeky and irreverent black comedy with a larger-than-life premise?  I do not sincerely think that Gervais, a publicly self-anointed atheist, was going out of his way to truly hurt peoples’ feelings (even though incredibly short-minded people, like The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have stated that the film is "morally offensive").  I think what he was ambitiously aiming for was to use the film’s unique premise as a channel into how societies believe firmly in whatever is told to them by people that they perceive as perfectly trustworthy.  Gervais may think that God and faith is a load of rubbish, but in the film I think he is attacking those notions less than he is the concept of how religions are oftentimes so rigorously fundamentalist and entrenched in their own dogma that they can interfere with logic and common sense.  When Mark “creates” God and heaven, he thinks it will make the world a better place.  Much to his amazement – and to own our frequent laughter – it has the exact opposite effect. 

For once, a film studio has done everything in its power to hide aspects of the film’s story in its trailers (I hasten to place a spoiler warning in my review, seeing as most critics have commented on the film’s religious underpinnings already); I think it was the absolute right choice.  Advertising it as an anti-religion farce would have destroyed any chances it would have to find an audience, not to mention that it would lead to needless and idiotic boycotts by special interest groups that would never see it in the first place.  Yes, it is easy to see how people of faith could obviously be offended by the film’s “religion is a form of a lie” sermon, but the reality is that Gervais seems to be saying that religion is a source of both good and evil.  

There's no lie there.

Ultimately, I fear that many viewers will overlook all the film’s worthy achievements in lieu of its polarizing themes.  THE INVENTION OF LYING is rancorously funny, contains satire as sharp witted and evocative as anything in the best pedigree of Monty Python, and the performances are resoundingly winning.  Gervais plays his role with a reliable level of high joviality self debasement, but some of the other performances, like one by Jennifer Garner (who may be the only actress outside of Sigourney Weaver that can plausibly play action heroes, dramatic roles, and comedic-romantic leads), is so vivacious, sassy, and sincerely genuine here that you are all but ready to forgive her for all of the cringe-worthy and malicious things she says to Mark (granted, she can’t help it, because she's hyper honest).  In the end, THE INVENTION OF LYING made me laugh too uncontrollably to lazily label it as a work of hurtful blasphemy and the way Gervais throws absolute caution to the wind and fundamentally alters the rom-com accoutrements into something more theologically fascinating is beyond inspired.  To calm everyone’s nerves, I will say that THE INVENTION OF LYING is primarily an explosively amusing fable – a work of complete fiction that never masks itself as universal fact - that cleverly delves into certain human truths. 

And…for all of you religious folk that want to come down hard on the film, I will leave you with a wonderful line from another faith-themed comedy (DOGMA) to calm you all: 

Remember, even God has a sense of humor.  Just look at the platypus. 

  H O M E