The Invention of Lying: A Review

Lying Ricky Gervais“It’s funny because it’s true.” We’ve all heard this statement and variations of it before. The truth is funny.

Well, Ricky Gervais has decided to turn this comic principle into the premise for his new movie. The Invention of Lying takes place in a universe in which nobody on Earth has ever told a lie. No lies, no mistruths, no fictions, no deception.

The first few scenes, which basically just lay the groundwork for such a universe, show just how durable this premise is. Gervais picks up a date who announces: “I’m disappointed and pessimistic for our date tonight.” He watches a commercial for Coke in which a pitch-man says, “I work for Coca-Cola and I’m asking you to please not stop drinking Coke” and uses the slogan “Coca-Cola: It’s very famous” (Pepsi’s slogan: “When They Don’t Have Coke”). He writes “scripts” that are basically just descriptions of historical events for Lecture Films (“Nobody wants to see a movie about the Black Plague.” “I got the 1300s! What do you want me to write about?”). All of these scenes are good for at least a few laughs.

The plot turns, however, when Gervais’ character Mark Bellison discovers the ability to lie (or, as he puts it: “I said something….that wasn’t”). One of the movie’s two brilliant scenes involves Gervais practicing his lies on his 100% gullible friends. “I invented the bicycle,” he tells his best friend. The reply: “I love your work.”

This scene, like many lesser ones, is elevated by a great cast. It’s Louis C.K. as Gervais’ best friend and an incognito Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender that make this particular exchange excellent, but the movie also has great but disappointingly brief performances by Jeffrey Tambor, John Hodgman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Stephen Merchant, and Jonah Hill. Most of them play some version of “hilariously honest” or “comically gullible,” but they all do it well.

Of course, once lying has been discovered, religion is not far off; with his mother on her deathbed, Bellison fabricates an afterlife to placate her fear of “eternal nothingness.” The idea, of course, catches on, and Bellison feels compelled to build a whole religious structure to explain the afterlife. The scene in which Gervais reads off his own version of the Ten Commandments to a crowd of anxious followers is by far the best in the film, and probably worth the price of admission by itself. I won’t even spoil any of the jokes, but the headline in the paper the next day is, “Finally A Reason to be Good!”

This particular scene, and the movie more generally, showcases Gervais’ gifts as a comic lead. I used to think that Gervais, creator of The Office (UK)* and Extras, could do no wrong, but after writing a particularly shitty episode of The Office and starring in Ghost Town…well, I was a bit worried. And while Gervais plays a more likable character in Lying than he does in his brilliant TV roles, the film’s plot manages to put him in a situation where he thrives—one in which he has authority/power that he doesn’t know how to use. Gervais’ ability to convey exasperation and confusion with little to no language is funny throughout the film.

*Which inspires in me none of the negative feelings the American version does.

The problem with Lying is that beyond those two scenes and the initial premise, there isn’t really much by way of an original movie. Bellison pursues his dream girl (Jennifer Garner) while simultaneously being treated like a messiah, and the film follows a traditional romantic comedy arc. The jokes never really evolve past the “everyone always tells the truth”/“everyone believes Gervais’ lies” stuff, although each of these provides a lot of comic opportunities. There’s some stuff about logic vs. feeling and different versions of the truth, which is pretty good as far as your basic popcorn philosophy goes, but not all that different from your traditional fluff.

Not that this movie is obligated to be some brilliant religious satire—Josh has warned us what happens when we expect movies to do social work—but this film simply doesn’t meet the high standard Gervais set with The Office and Extras. There’s no shame, however, in producing a movie in which very good actors riff on a pretty good premise; it’s a formula that’s tried and true.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elizabeth Schneider on October 13, 2009 at 12:53 AM

    I agree that there’s “no shame” in “producing a movie in which very good actors riff on a pretty good premise” but BECAUSE of the quality of the actors involved in said movie, I expected better riffs. The jokes in the beginning of the movie don’t really work for me, largely because of the premise that Gervais establishes with his (in my opinion, unnecessary) narration at the beginning of the film. If we are to believe that this is a universe in which nobody can LIE, why does that necessitate everybody telling the truth, even when unprompted? There’s a difference between not lying and HAVING MANNERS. Why would Jennifer Garner’s character just TELL Gervais’ that she’s “disappointed and pessimistic” about their evening? And even if she were going to say that, why would she then point out how unattractive he is? Not being able to lie does not mean that you are compelled to tell the truth, and if Gervais & Robinson are of the opinion that it does, that was something that should’ve been established in the narration, which at the same time, would’ve made the narration less pointless.

    My second major problem with the movie’s original “premise jokes” is that these jokes are mostly things that should’ve been previously established. If Tina Fey’s character has hated “every minute” of working for Gervais’, then that would’ve already been made clear throughout their relationship. It shouldn’t be news to Bellison that Fey’s character hates him, unless by virtue of him being fired, she now feels free to tell him that she does. But this is never made clear to the audience.

    Aside from these two premise flaws, frankly, I just felt the jokes should’ve been a lot stronger. The jokes stemmed from the bike line, and the pizza box scene were the only “Very Good” parts of the movie for me. This was the unfunniest I have ever seen Jonah Hill, and I expected more of a Gervais co-penned script. I felt like Lying was a waste of the “comedy cast of the decade” and I was extremely disapointed.

    On a side note, while i agree that it is unfair to “expect movies to do social work”, I was also really disappointed with the way Gervais has been handling the negative reaction to his acknowledgment that God is a lie. Gervais has proclaimed himself to be a proud atheist, but he is shying away from defending atheism. He has claimed several times on his blog (which i should link to here, but i’m too lazy) that “The film is a sweet Hollywood family rom-com; it just happens to be the first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.” and after seeing the movie, I think he should really own up to the fact that the movie does center heavily around religion. But this is a GOOD thing, in my opinion, and it bothers me that Gervais is seeming to chicken-shit to actually call the film what it is and become more publicly pro-atheism. I’m not sure if the studio is putting pressure on him to put a lid on it, or he himself is worried about the movie making money (Gervais has also publicly stated that he and Robinson wrote this movie and produced it BEFORE selling it to a studio, and therefore it is sort of an experiment in seeing how he does when left without the control of a studio, and how this movie does will have a significant bearing on the production of his future movies). But regardless, I wish Gervais wouldnt back away from this fight, as most others have done. It makes me think of him as just being to enthralled with fame and popularity to risk giving it up, something Extras was all about.

    Also, John S., don’t knock Ghost Town until you’ve actually watched it, kay?


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