The Invention of Lying (2009) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, some sexual material, and a drug reference
Running time: 99 min.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, Fionnula Flanagan, Tina Fey
Cameo: John Hodgman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Bobby Moynihan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton
Director: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Screenplay: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Review published December 28, 2009
Ricky Gervais (Stardust, Night at the Museum) writes, directs and stars in this gimmicky but smart high-concept comedy that puts his character, a fat, snub-nosed loser of a screenwriter named Mark Bellison, in a modern alternate reality where everyone has always told the absolute truth, no matter how brutal it might be. However, Mark has a breakthrough of a sort when he discovers that he can tell untruths, which gives him a great advantage, as there is no one who knows what a lie is, so they blindly believe anything he says. Mark immediately uses this ability to make money, further his career, woo the ladies, and make those around him feel good about themselves. However, he finds himself painted in the corner when he is overheard telling his terminally ill mother that her death doesn't mean nothing; she is going to a happier place full of the best things imaginable. News soon spreads about this new "truth" on the afterlife, and it soon becomes the talk of the world. Does Mark try to reveal the one thing no one can comprehend, that someone can actually not tell the truth, or does he continue to use his powers of lying to make everyone's lives better in the way he sees it?
Perhaps the most devout of audience members may find offense to this satire on the dangers of blind faith in men claiming to know more than anyone else, but there's no denying that Gervais, at the very least, has delivered an original and well-conceived comedy. Underneath the standard comedic gags is a philosophical work of a more serious nature, and while it makes you think, it never manages to lose its tone in delivering a cleverly amusing romantic comedy, even when things aren't playing strictly for laughs. And unlike most in its genre, this rom-com isn't one that relies on adherence to time-worn formula.
Gervais has never made a secret of his atheist beliefs, which may ruffle a few feathers when you realize that Gervais is, in large part, equating the propagation of religious beliefs as starting with some basic lies. Those that listen to these beliefs must never question them, as they are told that they are absolutely true, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Mark, who almost begrudgingly accepts the role of a sort of prophet who can get messages directly from the "Man in the Sky," finds wealth, fame and success through delivering these messages, all concocted from his head, to the unwavering masses, much in the way modern televangelists have amassed their own fortunes.
Taken outside of its context into a vacuum, Gervais skewers religious proponents, who fear that a God-less society would become amoral, by offering up his own version of the Ten Commandments (written on Pizza Hut boxes, in one of many product placements). His captivated audience, thirsty for knowledge and blind belief in everything Mark utters, have to be told that they must do good or they will not be able to enjoy an eternity of good things once they die, and will experience all of the worst things imaginable if they commit three bad acts. Gervais subtly posits that such rules were created in order to attract those seeking comfort in hearing that death doesn't mean nothingness and that people who do wrong will be punished. It is also a means to control, as rules are made up that benefit the proliferation of the religion itself, especially giving power to the people who make the rules that others must follow without skepticism.
If there is another movie that The Invention of Lying might be reminiscent of, it would be the Mike Judge film, Idiocracy, another broadly written satire about a proverbial "one-eyed man in the land of the blind". Gervais's film is the better of the two, as it offers a surprising degree of pathos in between the gags, with some rather touching moments involved with the pending passing of Mark's mother and his refusal to utilize his skills to gain love if it isn't earned. It's a little too big of a subject to cover all of the bases, but Gervais does what he sets out to do, even outdoing fellow atheist Bill Maher in his documentary about the ridiculousness and the dangerous power of organized religion in Religulous.
If anything, The Invention of Lying calls to mind how much of our society is built on a foundation of lies, half-truths, and things that have never been proven to be true, put forth by religions, powerful politicians, media outlets, and even parents. It's a further irony that many of these religious organizations build on what Gervais feels are great lies often call the act of lying a sin itself. In Gervais's mind, lies can be beneficial, depending on the context, but can be used to do great harm when one uses the power to lie to people who wholeheartedly believe in everything the liar says. But that lie isn't nearly as much of a transgression as having a society built on the notion that there are men in this world to which one should have absolute, unflinching belief in.
©2009 Vince Leo