Warner Bros. Pictures | 2009 | Rated PG-13 | 100 minutes
Writer, director, producer and star Ricky Gervais is a comic genius. Behind such classic British television shows such as “The Office” and “Extras,” Gervais is able to build incredibly funny situations based in an unparalleled dry wit to create amazing comedy that always seemingly is derived from a slightly different perspective. In his latest film, THE INVENTION OF LYING, Gervais presents a world where lying does not exist. Every single person tells the complete and unadulterated truth every moment of their life. People do not hesitate to tell another that, “they don’t find them attractive so they have no desire to sleep with them,” and advertisers simply run slogans such as, “Coke: It’s very famous.” Movies do not exist aside from documentaries featuring someone sitting in a chair and reading a story out of history. Gervais plays Mark Bellison, one of the “screenwriters” of these films who has had the unfortunate luck of being stuck with the 1300s because no one finds a movie about the Black Plague to be that appealing. Mark goes out on a blind date with the beautiful Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) who has no qualms about pointing out how she is out of Mark’s league and is not remotely attracted to him since he is pudgy and would not make a good genetic donor if they were to procreate. Down on his luck and fed up with his job and with his lack of a romantic life, Mark decides to do the unthinkable. He decides to tell a lie. Since no one has ever even fathomed lying before, Mark soon learns that lies can give him everything his heart desires.
This central premise forms the core of THE INVENTION OF LYING, but as can probably be imagined, the uniqueness and humor of hearing people say exactly what it is they are thinking eventually does grow tiresome after a bit and lose some of its impact. Gervais though attempts to circumvent this by actually combining three premises under the guise of a single one. Once the humor of total honesty begins to wane, Gervais moves to a second premise of the inadvertent creation of religion, complete with Gervais writing his own Ten Commandments on pizza boxes to present to his disciples and growing out long hair and a beard. When this becomes a bit forced and contrived, Gervais moves to the third premise, that of a basic love story as Mark pursues Anna. Unfortunately though, the three premises are not blended together well and instead feel completely disjointed. There are some threads of through stories built in to keep the action progressing, but the result is not satisfying. Just as one premise completely loses steam, another one is there to take its place until it too becomes rote.
This shifting of gears multiple times in the picture ends up having the effect of never really allowing any depth to be achieved. While the honesty premise and the religion premise do have some amazingly funny parts in them, the love story premise feels completely contrived and in turn, minimizes the effectiveness of the other premises. Mark believes that Anna is the “most wonderful person he has ever seen,” but why? She makes it abundantly clear from the onset that she is not interested in him, and Garner plays the role with the same doe-eyed look of innocence throughout. There is no real substance to her character, so why is Mark so interested in her? This complete lack of substance is reflected in almost every other role as well, and Gervais has his actors only play at the superficial level. Thus characters become just stereotypes and not fully realized and it is here that the film loses its cohesiveness. Gervais also unfortunately utilizes scene after scene of talking heads just sitting in a restaurant yammering on and on with exposition, and this in turn grinds the pacing to a halt on more than one occasion.
THE INVENTION OF LYING is replete with numerous filmmaking contrivances as well, such as music montages and flashbacks that are used multiple times throughout the film that they end up becoming distracting to the story and feel gimmicky. For example, in one of the most unimaginative music montages, ELO’s song “Mr. Blue Sky” is used, not because it really conveys the mood of what is taking place on screen, but because for some reason that song has become the anthem as of late for quirky comedies and is appearing in movies at an alarming rate. Gervais also has various stars do cameos in the film, but none really add anything to the level of comedy or help the story move forward, but rather pull the viewer out of world of the film to ask whomever is sitting next to them questions like, “oh, isn’t that Edward Norton?”
THE INVENTION OF LYING had the potential to be a lot better than it unfortunately is. The initial premise is great and there are some incredibly funny moments in the film. The fact is though, Gervais does not keep the comedy on the cutting edge of the premise, but instead allows it to devolve into just another love story. The characters do not really remain true to themselves and aside from Gervais’ Mark, are never allowed to truly grow and change. THE INVENTION OF LYING, while funny in parts, ends up not having the steam to keep one’s interest throughout an entire film.