Published on September 15th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson1
Review: The Invention of Lying
If you want to know the basic plot of The Invention of Lying, look no further than the first 30 seconds of the film. Ricky Gervais lays it all out via narration during the opening credits: these people live in a world where people can only tell the truth, and halfway through the movie this “chubby little loser” will tell the world’s first lie.
The reality of a lie-free world is first illustrated with an overly blunt line delivered by Jennifer Garner when Gervais arrives to pick her up for a date (in the introduction to this screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Gervais claimed that Garner was responsible for the line). The context of a date is the perfect template for introducing the film’s concept, and it’s heightened through every character they encounter that night – even the waiter – making bold confessions about their lives and intentions.
So much personal information is volunteered that you you wonder at what point this becomes a social nightmare. There’s no effort to spare anyone’s feelings or one’s own pride, even if doing so only requires keeping quiet. There’s a difference between telling someone the truth and telling someone everything, right? But this is a fantasy world, and there’s little time for pondering.What are all the different lies we tell to each other? You can see the brainstorming sessions overflowing onto the screen, among the most fruitful of which is the idea of lies in advertising. We see a Coke commercial on tv with a pitchman admitting that overindulgence “can lead to obesity,” followed later by a Pepsi ad on the side of a bus with the tagline “when they don’t have any Coke.” Inspired jokes like this were scattered liberally throughout the film, with a few taking dark turns to keep us surprised.
Cue the relationship conflict. Gervais is rejected by Garner the same day he gets fired from his job. Nearly broke and with rent due, he visits his bank to make a withdrawal, and gets a wonderful, terrible idea. The teller doesn’t question him when he says he should have $500 more in his account than their records state. He walks away with a pile of cash and a newly-opened can of worms.
Gervais experiments with his new talent to start accumulating his wealth and power, and get second chances at his job and with the girl. And he also tries to do good for others, illustrated in a montage that proves to be rather inconsequential to the overall story.
Things are going fairly well, until Gervais tries to comfort his elderly mother and convince her that there’s a world beyond this one after we die. That’s when he gets into trouble. Suddenly, he’s perceived as having the answers to the universe’s big questions, and the world is all ears.
That’s where the film makes a bold point: in a world without lies, is there organized religion? A Bible? Well, there would be now. Gervais tells everyone he speaks to a “the man in the sky”, a lie that traps him into being the guy with all the answers. He does his best, explaining the “good place” and the “bad place” in the afterlife, standing before a crowd of holding pizza boxes as tablets with the universe’s rules posted on them. It’s another example of a “what if” premise being examined to its greatest extremes, and executed swiftly and oddly realistically given its ridiculousness.
The religious imagery at times slightly echos Evan Almighty, but the idea of the world following the George Carlin definition of religious dedication is endlessly amusing. Gervais blogged about some hardcore Christians calling the film blasphemous, which we’ll surely hear more of as the release date approaches.
Once the theme is exhausted (it peters out more than it is resolved), the focus shifts back to the relationship with Garner, which feels like an odd match. Her character is incredibly shallow, focused only on landing a man with money, power, and the good looks necessary to make attractive babies someday. This seems unique to her, not the world in which they operate. It’s easy to understand why his character would be initially attracted to her, simply based on her looks. But I struggle to find the kindness that Gervais claims to love about her later on in the film. She’s sweet in her demeanor, but we don’t get a chance to see it in a tangible way.
Rob Lowe, Gervais’s nemesis at his office, has the suave girlfriend-stealing character down perfectly (it reminded me so much of his character in Wayne’s World). Tina Fey is great in her few scenes as Gervais’s bitter yet upbeat assistant. Jonah Hill is another highly-billed actor who gets limited screentime as a suicidal neighbour, but he makes the most of it (much in the way he stole his eBay store scene in 40 Year Old Virgin).
My #1 tip if you’re planning to see this film: Do not read the full cast list on IMDB in advance. If you’re the type of person to get excited about the casting of Louis CK and Tina Fey in supporting roles, you will be rewarded handsomely with quickie cameos that you never saw coming (and perhaps one that you did).
Overall, there are enough solid jokes and heightening of the concept to make Invention of Lying a fun comedy despite its flaws.
Below: Ricky Gervais and co-writer/director Matthew Robinson present the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 14, 2009. Photos copyright Sharilyn Johnson.