From the moment you emerge from the vast darkness of the womb, your parents start teaching. “I’m Mommy.” “That’s Daddy.” “Stop crying.” “Don’t ever lie.” That last one is a particular stickler. In the case of one’s growth into an adult, when the inevitable screw-up occurs, it’s usually difficult, but somehow better to just tell the truth. You might get yelled at for screwing up in the first place, but lord help you if you lie about it and get caught later. Then you’ve screwed up twice. The key phrase to this end is, “honesty is the best policy.” But is it? Some people can’t handle the truth, as Jack Nicholson so eloquently put it. If you tell it to them, they refer to it as “brutal honesty.” Is it worth making something up just to make someone feel better? That’s the question asked in The Invention of Lying and it’s a curious one indeed.
Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is a creature who inhabits a world not wholly dissimilar to our own. He works in an office. He has friends. He has enemies. He watches television. The difference between Mark’s world and the one we occupy is that nobody on Mark’s planet has evolved the ability to lie. In fact, they don’t even have words like “truth” or “fallacy” or “real” or “fiction.” People describe things only as they are without a hint of deceit. Believe it or not – though I would never lie to you, dear reader – all this honesty makes for kind of a dry palace, sans fun. It’s reminiscent of that kid in school who raises his hand during the last nanosecond of class and reminds the teacher she forgot to assign homework. People speak their minds. There is no fear of consequences.
Mark is set up on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), which almost immediately spells doom. He arrives too early when she was in the middle of something private, frustrating her. Next, she notices he’s fat, short and has a snub nose. How does he know this? She tells him straight up. No need for internal monologue. Voice-over be damned. Apparently when you are told nothing but fact for your entire life, what we know as “brutal truths,” no longer seems like jabs and digs shot straight at the heart. Instead, they are more annoying than anything. Just a day in the life.
When his assistant tells Mark she’s always hated him and he’s about to get fired, there’s perhaps disappointment, but no insult. Mark is a screenwriter for Hollywood films. In his world, screenwriters are the stars, because there are no actors, only people who read the script in front of a stable camera. Scripts are solely based on historical fact. The only stories which exist are about things which have already happened. There is no make-believe. The firing from his job naturally creates financial problems for Mark and when his landlord demands the payment of overdue rent, Mark finds himself in a bind. He doesn’t have enough money in his bank account to cover the full amount. In a spurt of inspiration, he lies. The world’s first. He is given the money needed, because everything said is believed. He now possesses a superpower. Whether he uses it for good or evil depends on his character.
When the film was first announced, it was immediately accused of being an inverse Liar, Liar, when in truth, it’s much more than that. The Invention of Lying is certainly a high-concept film, which if starring Jim Carrey would have turned into a wacky good time, but with Gervais at the helm, it’s interested in more than just delivering laughs. It tackles bigger issues at hand. A lot of the film’s humor stem from the unexpected bluntness of the way characters speak to each other. No secrecy is veiled or comment guarded. It’s an odd world indeed, but one devoid of much vibrancy. The strict adherence to truth makes for a bland artistic output and the film goes to show why most people prefer some sort of scripted fare over The History Channel. The film’s big idea covers the advent of religion and is perhaps its biggest argument for the necessity to create some kind of story, as opposed to sticking to complete fact.
Co-directed and co-written by Gervais and Matthew Robinson, the film visually offers little more than any standard romantic comedy and sadly has a third act which is mostly geared toward Mark getting the girl, but their intention for striving higher is what puts the film in a different category. They don’t put complete reliance on the hope that characters speaking “brutal truths” can carry an entire film of funny. Instead, they manage to insert the larger societal conundrums and prove a lot more can be done within a basic framework than most filmmakers are either unwilling or unable to do.
Gervais may still be a long way away from becoming the star in America that he is in Britain, but here he’s crafted another role tailor-made for his persona. Mark isn’t the nicest human being, but not a jerk, either. He’s more of a product of his non-lying environment. Gervais does surprise in a scene full of emotion, displaying a depth to the actor unseen to this point in his career. We shall continue to yearn for purely comedic performances, but this new turn gives Gervais the ability to delve deeper into a role, as opposed to skimming the surface. Jennifer Garner is given perhaps the most befitting role of her career in the film, as beautiful, but slightly dim-witted and superficial Anna. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the actress and the character and one wonders if this is more up her alley than her five-year stint on “Alias.”
The Invention of Lying, doesn’t ride high throughout, but given weight to a high-concept without relying on the initial idea to be the sole driving force of the film, makes it one of the more enjoyable movie-going experiences of the year. Hopefully Gervais can continue his ascent to stardom, and will undoubtedly do so if able to stay the course he’s currently on. He overtook the small screen and has Hollywood dominance eventually forthcoming. That’s the truth. Go ahead and run with it.