TIFF #7; Lies, Damn Lies, and Capitalism

September 16, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's getting to that time in every festival when things start winding down - midweek. The bloom is off the rose, so to speak. The best and biggest films are in the rearview mirror. Crowds are dwindling. There are no longer lines at the box office. And the press has departed en masse. It's getting close to the point where the festival organizers can put this year's edition - which has probably been the worst since I started attending in 1997 - to bed. Then it will be time to look toward next year when TIFF's new and brightest bauble - the Bell Lightbox - should be ready for display.

Last year, Ricky Gervais brought his Ghost Town to Toronto for its World Premiere in advance of its October theatrical opening. Gervais was apparently so pleased with the results that he's repeating the process this year, only this time the movie is called The Invention of Lying. In many ways, it's a similar animal to the 2008 film: concentrated moments of hilarity stuck in a morass of uninspired, underscripted storyline. What makes things annoying is that Gervais is working with a great premise; he's just unable to do anything remarkable with it. It's surprising to admit that the British comedian, known far and wide for his willingness to take risks, plays it safe in The Invention of Lying - a fault from which the movie never truly recovers.

The film takes place in an alternate universe much like our own one, but where human beings are incapable of lying. Unfortunately, not only must they tell the truth but they are afflicted with TMI (too much information) syndrome. Consider this situation: A woman is about to go out on a date with a man. She's feeling horny and wants to do something to take the edge off. With him waiting downstairs, she decides to opt for a quick masturbation session. Does she tell him the truthful "Give me a few minutes and I'll be ready." No, she asks him to wait and tells him what she is going to do. Yes, this sort of crassness does generate a few extra laughs, but it also makes it impossible to take the characters seriously. Telling the truth does not mean blurting out every detail. That's not honest; it's stupid.

At any rate, in this world, Mark Bellison (Gervais) is a loser's loser. He's about to be fired from his job and evicted from his apartment. The girl of his dreams, Jennifer (Jennifer Garner), decides she's not interested following an uneventful date. Unexpectedly, however, Mark develops the power to lie, and it leads to his becoming one of the most influential and powerful men in the world. When he approaches a woman on the street and informs her that if they don't have sex, the world will end, her response is to ask if they have time to make it to a hotel. He invents heaven and God, but he still can't get Jennifer to agree to spend her life with him. Bummer.

The film is likeable but that doesn't detract from the simple fact that the screenplay is lazy. High points include Mark's interaction with his secretary (Tina Fey), his ploy to get back his job, and his press conference to explain God and morality. Low points include a montage that allows the screenwriters to skip writing clever lies (the music obscures anything the characters might say), some lengthy drawn-out passages, and an embarrassingly trite ending. Any points Gervais and co-director Matthew Robinson earn for their satirical perspective of religion is erased by the bad bad bad conclusion.

The Invention of Lying isn't the worst film to come along and it certainly isn't the worst one I've seen at this festival, but there's something more distressing about it: it's a disappointment. Any time a movie squanders a premise as rich with possibilities as this one, it deserves condemnation. The Invention of Lying could have been - and probably should have been - a great motion picture, but it can barely achieve the level of mediocrity. Still, those who enjoyed Ghost Town will probably appreciate Gervais' latest effort. Better premise, worse execution - call it a draw.

If Gervais' film is about lying, Michael Moore's is about the things Michael Moore films are typically about: lying, stealing, cheating, and corruption - all accomplished by the Federal Government at our expense. To start with, let's get one simple distinction out of the way. No matter how the Academy treats them, these aren't really documentaries. Instead, they're the cinematic equivalent of Op Ed pieces, in which Moore establishes a thesis and spends about two hours defending it with a combination of facts, half-truths, fictions, and arguments.

Capitalism: A Love Story is vintage Moore, and probably represents his best work in several years. It is good not because it is more accurate or takes fewer liberties with the facts or provides the result of deeper investigative journalism, but because it has the capacity to fuel thought and argument. Moore's goal is not to have legions of sheep parroting his words but to generate discussion. And, at least on this occasion, his attacks cross party lines. This isn't an all-out assault on Republicans. Moore takes aim at Democrats as well. In fact, his thesis states that the U.S. Government from the Reagan era on (including Clinton) has systematically betrayed the American public, with the highest point of this betrayal coming with the TARP bailout. He places the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush and the Democrat leaders in the House and Senate. And he lambasts Chris Dodd with charges of hypocrisy most foul.

Moore's basic message is that capitalism, at least in its current incarnation, is evil. It makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It uses taxpayer money to bail out banks and corporations that were in peril because of their own poor management and gambling. It results in salary decreases to workers, massive job cuts, and pay raises to CEOs. And the government is complicit in all of this with many of the people working to regulate the markets being former employees of the companies being regulated. Even discounting Moore's penchant for hyperbole, Capitalism paints a damning picture, and that's because there's really nothing new in the film. Moore is drawing from mostly mainstream sources. And it's pretty compelling when two Catholic priests and one Catholic bishop declare that capitalism is immoral and against the teachings of Jesus.

Moore's movies all follow a template and this one is not substantially different, although the filmmaker restrains himself from too many on-screen appearances and his grandstanding is held to a minimum. He still employs shock tactics and the occasional cheap shot, and the gallows humor is there. Moore manages to mix outrage and comedy better than most stand-up comics. At the heart of it all is, of course, a serious message and, regardless of whether you worship the director, despise him, or are somewhere in between, it's hard to disregard his central question. So, while Capitalism: A Love Story is unlikely to change anyone's opinion of Moore as a filmmaker and rabble-rouser, some of the content may result in a deeper consideration of the influence that Wall Street has over Washington D.C.

The trailers for The Invention of Lying, Capitalism: A Love Story: