Ah, Ricky Gervais. It would be so much easier if people could be slotted into one category of another, wouldn’t it? In comedian / Twitter / hosting Golden Globes awards mode, the man goes for any joke that gets an “ooooo” from the audience, regardless of quality. He declares himself an outsider whilst simultaneously getting paid by the same system he criticises. But it would be a fool to deny his ability to write quality material. After Life was, by and large, a respectful and touching show about mental health. The Office was a perfectly structured sitcom. So what about his movie output?
The Invention Of Lying sees Gervais retooling an original idea from Matthew Robinson, and starring as Mark Bellison. Mark, along with everyone in the world, is only capable of telling the truth. He is failing at his job as a movie scriptwriter because, in a world with no fiction so every movie is a historical documentary, he has been lumbered with the dull 14th century and has no good material. His date with Anna (Jennifer Garner) goes nowhere as she readily admits that she doesn’t find him attractive (and also admits that she ‘took care of business’ herself beforehand).
As you may have guessed, Mark figures out how to lie and, as no-one in this world can grasp the concept of lying, everyone takes everything he says to be the absolute truth. Such as when he (falsely) claims there is money in his account so the bank happily gives it to him. Or when he invents an alien invasion in the middle of the 14th century and writes the most popular movie ever made. Or when he accidentally dreams up religion…
Ah, see. Now we can categorise this movie. It’s Gervais at his most thinly veiled. The concept of a world not being able to lie is effectively squandered because the way this is portrayed is that everyone is uncaringly and offensively truthful. Ok, so there are no lies, but that doesn’t mean that characters have to blurt out insults without any restraint. In fact, in a world with no lying, you would expect everyone to be experts at tactfully choosing their words! The mechanic is used to utilise Gervais’ favourite writing trick: making himself the victim so that he can garner sympathy as well as personal currency for later retaliations and choices.
By this token, the first half of the movie is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is but at least the cast gives it a good go. Jennifer Garner brings an innocence to her honesty which almost lands the jokes, and Rob Lowe’s derisory and monotone Brad (as Mark’s ‘rival’) is a good boo-hiss baddy to rally against. But any goodwill gleaned from these scenes is destroyed with a massive eye roll when Mark lies to his scared and dying mother about the ‘Man In The Sky’ that will look after her. By doing so he effectively invents the concept of heaven, much to the amazement of the medical staff (and later, the world) who insist on hearing more.
Gervais’ writing talent makes this a yin and yang watershed moment. The scene with his mother is genuinely saddening thanks to great performances and heartfelt dialogue. But it also marks the point where the movie swings deep into a condescending atheist debate book, designed to show how easy it would be to invent religion around man’s own confused goals and how easily manipulated people are into belief. The Invention Of Lying was already floundering as an unengaging rom-com up to this point, and the detour to punch down a hastily constructed straw man reveals that the plot was never more than a grouping of ideas than a coherent script.
If you want a good Hollywood Gervais movie where the balance is pitched right, watch Ghost Town. The Invention Of Lying is about as convincing as a 6-year-old standing next to a broken vase saying, “I didn’t do it.”
Words by Michael Record