Invention of Lying, The (United States, 2009)

September 30, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Invention of Lying, The Poster

It's Ghost Town all over again. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who enjoyed Ricky Gervais' previous feature, but The Invention of Lying feels a little too much like a wasted opportunity. In many ways, it's a similar animal to the 2008 film: concentrated moments of hilarity stuck in a morass of otherwise 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 Invention of Lying represents Gervais' feature directorial debut (he shares the job with Matthew Robinson). This is not his initial foray behind the cameras - he filled that job for 14 episodes of The Office and 13 episodes of Extras - but this is the first time he has filled this function for a theatrical release. Gervais also gets a co-writing credit with Robinson. He's one of four producers. And he's the lead actor. So, while he may have been a hired gun for Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying is his baby through-and-through. Strange that it should feel so much like Ghost Town, right down to the vague sense of dissatisfaction.

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 on a date with a man. She's feeling horny and wants to do something to take off the edge. 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 in pursuing a romantic relationship following an uneventful date. Unexpectedly, however, Mark develops the power to lie, and this 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 cheat (the music obscures things the characters are saying), some lengthy drawn-out passages, and an embarrassingly trite ending. Any points Gervais earns for his satirical perspective of religion are erased by the conclusion, which leaves a worse aftertaste than a dozen cloves of garlic.

The way in which The Invention of Lying confronts God and the spiritual world is interesting. When Mark's mother is on her deathbed and admits to being frightened of oblivion, he lies to her about there being a heaven. He is overheard by doctors and nurses and, since there is no such thing as a "lie," everyone believes him. He becomes an instant celebrity with knowledge of things previously undreamed of and he essentially makes up religious doctrine as he goes along. It's a clever concept that leads to a few big laughs but, like much of the movie, it fails to mine the full potential of the situation. Were its fairly negative views of religion better known to the general public, The Invention of Lying might be boycotted by, for example, the Catholic League. In an effort to limit controversy, the distributor, Warner Brothers, has decided to obscure the film's unsubtle commentary about religious matters. You won't find anything about it in the trailers; you have to see the movie to be exposed to it.

The Invention of Lying isn't the worst film to come along and it certainly isn't the worst one I've seen this month (or even this week), 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 - at least a very good motion picture, but it can barely achieve the level of mediocrity associated with throwaway entertainment. Still, those who enjoyed Ghost Town will probably appreciate Gervais' latest effort, even if the best it can be labeled is "forgettable."

Invention of Lying, The (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1