The Invention of Lying: The Truth Hurts
The kind thing to say about The Invention of Lying, the new comedy starring Ricky Gervais — which the comedian wrote and directed with Matthew Robinson — would be that it’s quite often very funny, and that it’s far more thoughtful than most studio comedies. But in the spirit of the World of Truth in which The Invention of Lying is set, where no one has ever told a whopper or a fib or a tall tale or a little white lie or a gentle untruth, I will be honest: I wished The Invention of Lying was better. I hoped for more from Gervais, the certifiable genius behind The Office. I’m glad that the movie was made, and I hope it does well, but I can’t help but think that it could’ve been a lot weirder, funnier, and better if only Gervais and Robinson had had the guts to go all-out in pursuit of their trenchant concept.
The courage to go too far has never before been a problem for Gervais, who in his original version of The Office was perfectly willing to push a joke from uncomfortable to flat-out unendurable. There are signs of that same uncompromising comic sensibility in The Invention of Lying — as when a neighbor (Jonah Hill) answers Gervais’s innocent “How are you?” with an admission that he’s been throwing up sleeping pills all night because he lacks the courage to take a fatal overdose — but the movie’s attention winds up focused, to its detriment, on a wan romance between Mark Bellison (Gervais), a screenwriter, and Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), a … well, we don’t really know. I’ll get to that.
In the World of Truth in which Mark and Anna live, movies consist of orators reading stories from history at the camera, and advertisements — in a bit better done in 1990’s otherwise justly-forgotten Crazy People — are unadorned and frank: “Pepsi: When They Don’t Have Coke.” Interpersonal communication is the most altered, as not only does everyone never lie, no one ever withholds an uncomfortable truth. “I’m definitely not sexually attracted to you,” Anna tells Mark before their first date. “I’m not looking forward to this evening at all.” The result is not a utopia of truthfulness but instead a blunt world of matter-of-fact disdain. Mark, short and tubby and Gervaisian, is told by everyone — Anna, his bitter secretary (Tina Fey), his office rival (Rob Lowe) — what a fat loser he is, and his fellow losers, like his suicidal neighbor, or his best friend Greg (Louis CK), are unable to delude themselves into thinking things will ever get better. After all, in the World of Truth, you can’t even lie to yourself.
That all changes when a stressed-out Mark tells the world’s first lie. Sure, at first he cheats at his job and cleans out an area casino, but soon he’s telling little white lies that make people feel better. (Like convincing Jonah Hill’s suicidal character that he has plenty to live for.) But things get out of hand when the comforting story he tells his dying mother — that death isn’t nothingness, that Heaven awaits her — spreads like wildfire to a populace eager for something to look forward to. Soon Mark has invented not only lying but religion, frantically spinning tall tales about “the man in the sky” who watches over everyone.
As blithely blasphemous as the movie’s view of religion may be, moment by moment, The Invention of Lying coasts less on its ideas and mainly on the anti-charm of Gervais, who’s in pretty much every scene and narrates even the movie’s opening credits in his undermining whinge. (“Oh, the credits. The money people. No one cares about you.”) The movie’s greatest surprise might be Gervais’s range; I never would have expected he had a weeping deathbed scene in him, much less one as moving as this one. And he and Jennifer Garner both commit to the movie’s love story, despite its one glaring shortcoming: It’s never made clear why, exactly, Mark is so deeply in love with Anna.
“You’re the kindest person I’ve ever met,” he says, but she’s not; she’s exactly as kind as everyone else in the World of Truth, which is to say not particularly kind at all. After all, Mark’s invented not only lying but kindness, apparently, if one defines kindness as saying nice things when you don’t have to and doing nice things without being asked. No, the only reason Mark loves Anna at all is because … she’s beautiful. We don’t know what she does, what she cares about — we don’t know anything about her other than that she’s pretty, and she’s been programmed along with the rest of humanity to speak her mind and live entirely practically. “I need to find a genetically appropriate mate,” she protests when Mark asks if they might have a romantic relationship; he might as well be in love with a robot.
This bewildering failure to give Anna any inner life at all — literally, she has nothing other than a fear of being alone, which she of course baldly states from the outset — turns The Invention of Lying from an intriguing conceptual comedy to a failed one. After all, if the lesson that Mark teaches Anna is to see what’s inside a person — to look beyond the truth for a greater truth, in essence — why is it that the pudgy, snub-nosed guy will only settle for Jennifer Garner?
In the end, I wished for the movie to be bigger, messier, more outrageous. I wished for The Invention of Lying to do away with its concept-negating love story and instead embrace the madcap, world-changing possibilities of its premise — less romantic comedy, more Life of Brian. Given the myriad of wildly comic directions in which the story could’ve gone, it’s awfully disappointing that Gervais and Robinson end their movie with … a wedding. (Albeit a funny one conducted by John Hodgman in a country church — sorry, “A Quiet Place to Think About the Man in the Sky,” as the sign outside reads.) Is that really the best that Ricky Gervais could do? I cannot tell a lie: I expected more.