The film takes place in an alternate reality in which the concept of lying does not exist. Everyone-from politicians to advertisers, to the man and woman on the street, speaks the truth and nothing but the truth with no thought of the consequences. But when a down-on-his-luck loser named Mark (Ricky Gervais) suddenly develops the ability to lie, he finds that dishonesty has its rewards. In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, Mark easily lies his way to fame and fortune. But lies have a way of spreading, and Mark begins to realize that things are getting a little out of control when some of his tallest tales are being taken as, well, gospel. With the entire world now hanging on his every word, there is only one thing Mark has not been able to lie his way into: the heart of the woman he loves.
The first major misfire in Ricky Gervais’ comedic arsenal, The Invention of Lying is a high-concept, laugh-free over-indulgence that blows up terribly in the face of its smug star, who also serves as writer and first-time feature director with fellow debutante, Matthew Robinson.
Through his iconic role as David Brent in his masterwork The Office (and the success of its many international spin-offs, particularly Steve Carell’s US version) and the insider-humour of his follow-up series Extras, Gervais has manoeuvred his American standing into the position of 'Comedy’s It-Man’ – the sharp-tongued observer of life’s foibles.
So it is no surprise that at the centre of Gervais’ film is an examination of the God-complex (as it applies to him, of course) and the role blind faith and shady religions play in our society. What is surprising is how glaringly unfunny the film’s barbs are and just how tonally haphazard the end result appears.
Gervais is a funny man, but he’s not a filmmaker.
The Invention of Lying creates an alternate reality which is devoid of deception in all its forms. Questions are answered with brutal honesty; observations are coarse and graphic, in the name of complete openness. But Gervais’ fantasy world is inconsistent and this becomes apparent very early in the film. When Anna (Jennifer Garner) is caught off-guard by the early arrival of her date, Mark (Gervais), she inexplicably declares 'Come in. I was just masturbating." Not lying does not mean you have to say everything; it just means you don’t lie. Never has the wisdom of 'If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all" had such resonance...
Some of the film's wittier moments are in the creation of the imaginary truth-world – a retirement village is called 'A Sad Place For Old Hopeless People"; a bus ad for Pepsi reads 'When They Don’t Have Coca-Cola"; that free Coke ad is negated by a TV commercial, in which a Coke spokesman (Jimmi Simpson) takes a sip then winces 'Uh, it’s too sweet for me". It isn’t a wholly original idea – the 1990 Dudley Moore vehicle, Crazy People, in which an ad executive has a nervous breakdown and stumbles across 'Truth in Advertising’ ('Volvos – They’re boxy but they’re safe.") used the concept to better effect – but Gervais finds some fun laughs with it.
For Mark, a career no-hoper with little money, a paunch and bland features, a world in which honesty is the only policy is a tough one. A revelatory moment occurs when he creates the first 'lie’, initially to abscond with some much-needed money from the bank, then to talk a statuesque blonde (Stephanie March) back to a hotel room. The scope of his new power dawns upon him and soon he becomes an international media celebrity, having accidentally created then refined the notion of religion, aka The Man In The Sky.
The darkening of the human conscience? The birth of religion? The definition of God? All this and the encapsulating social impact such developments would have? There is a mightily powerful and potent satire to be made from such elements, and some of the best films of the last 20 years tackled the same or similar notions of a parallel, alternate world with warmth, humour and insight – Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998), Michel Poulette’s French/Canadian hit Louis XIX, le roi des ondes (1994) and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) immediately spring to mind. And one can’t begrudge the (overly-) confident Gervais for attempting to tackle such issues with his first Hollywood effort as writer/director.
But The Invention of Lying is a lifeless, inert film. It's intellectualising is first-grade level; its romantic pulse barely a blip (Gervais and Garner have no chemistry); its humour which, by definition, must rise out of the worldly concept that Gervais and Robinson fail to authentically create, is non-existent.
Given his newly-acquired Hollywood status, Gervais parades his star-buddies out for their moments in his spotlight. Jonah Hill as Mark’s suicidal neighbour, Louis C.K. as his best-friend Greg and Fionnula Flanagan as Mark’s ailing mother are fine and without blame; a hammy and excruciating Rob Lowe, a shamelessly-wasted Tina Fey and why-would-they-bother? cameos from Jason Bateman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton and Christopher Guest are the pits.
Ricky Gervais is not the classic 'leading man’ type. Most of the attempts at humour in The Invention of Lying are at his fat, snub-nosed expense. His two films to-date – the vastly-superior and woefully-underseen Ghost Town (2008) and now ...Lying – have had to create complex fantasy settings just to make his casting credible. And the path for British comedy stars into Hollywood leading man roles has been a rocky one – great talents like Peter Sellers (in Hal Ashby’s Being There, 1980), Dudley Moore (in Blake Edward’s 10, 1979 and Steve Gordon’s Arthur, 1981) and most recently, Sacha Baron Cohen have had some success, but Rowan Atkinson, the late Peter Cook, Steve Coogan, Craig Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Billy Connolly, even the great Monty Python team, have all found breakout US acceptance hard to come by and maintain.
Another stumble like The Invention of Lying and Gervais may find himself doing stand-up at West Coast college campuses or pitching a late-night talk show concept to the cable channels, just to stay in the LA loop. No matter how hot he is amongst the Rodeo Drive royalty right now, he better find a mainstream and profitable US persona soon. The business side of Hollywood won’t love Ricky Gervais forever. And that’s the truth....