I’m not surprised that Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying came in at number four on its opening weekend (even though the artificially inflated 3-D surcharge grosses of the two films above it played a hand in that). If anything, I’m surprised it did that well. Not only is Gervais an unconventional leading man (which is partly the point), but also the fantasticated basis of the film works against it. I suspect that some of its ultimate philosophical underpinnings—if they’re known—only worsen matters. That’s a great pity, because The Invention of Lying is one of the best and most thought-provoking American comedies to come along in some considerable time.
For those who don’t know, the film takes place in a world very much like our own, with one very notable difference: There’s no such thing as a lie. The concept of truth vs. lies doesn’t exist because no one has ever lied and apparently no one has the capacity to lie. This makes the world of the film a pretty inhospitable, uncomfortable and frankly dreary place. Everyone is brutally honest. Your blind date answers the door and immediately tells you she’s disappointed to get a look at you. No one pretends to be your friend. No assessment is guarded. Euphemisms are unknown, so a nursing home is boldly labeled, “A Sad Place for Old People to Die.” And drama and the arts as we know them are nonexistent. Movies consist of someone sitting in a chair and reading historical facts. It’s about as entertaining as you’d imagine.
But all this changes when lowly screenwriter Mark Bellison (Gervais)—fired because he’s been assigned to a non-crowd-pleasing century where the only topic of note is the black plague—discovers that not only can he make things up, but that anything he says will be taken for the truth because no one can conceive of anything else. This leads to success and fame, but becomes more complicated when his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is on her deathbed expressing her fear of an eternity of nothingness. To comfort her, Mark invents an afterlife of mansions in the sky and being young again, free of pain and surrounded by those she’s loved. Unfortunately—or maybe not—all this is overheard by members of the hospital staff, who take it as, well, gospel. And they tell others and it spreads—and Mark becomes known as the one who can talk to the “Man in the Sky.”
This is a pretty heavy—even daring—concept to put within this kind of framework. It’s one that’s very apt to draw a good deal of wrath in certain quarters, since it’s grounded in the idea that religion is a man-made invention designed solely for the purpose of offering comfort—and that it then complicates and guides itself with a set of rules grafted onto it by man, in this case Mark Bellison. It depends on how seriously you take the premise—and your own beliefs or lack thereof—as to how you’ll feel about this. But before you take it too much to heart, consider that the film also purports that all drama stems from lying, so can you really be sure that The Invention of Lying isn’t itself a lie? This too serves to make the film deeper than it might seem.
Is the film funny? Yes. Is it thoughful? Yes. Does it—as some have said—drift too much into the realm of the romantic comedy in Mark’s relationship with Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner)? Possibly. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, but it struck me that the rom-com aspect is developed in a sufficiently unusual manner to overcome that objection. And without it, I’m not sure how the film would deal with something that has to develop along with the ability to lie: a conscience. In any case, this is a film well worth your attention. Rated PG-13 for language, including some sexual material and a drug reference.