Review: “The Invention of Lying” (2009)
WARNING: JUST-THE-FACTS SPOILERS
The big problem with Ricky Gervais’ comedy “The Invention of Lying” is this: Lying isn’t funny. The truth is funny. Uncomfortable truths. Blunt truths. It’s funny—in this universe where people haven’t yet developed the gene to lie—when Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) greets Mark Bellison (Gervais) at the door by admitting she’d just been masturbating and he responds, helplessly, “That makes me think of your vagina.” It’s funny when she tells her mother, who phones during their date, and within earshot of Mark, “No, I won’t be sleeping with him.” It’s particularly funny, because it’s particularly uncomfortable, when the old folks’ home is named: “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”
But saying to a bank teller that you’ve got $800 in your account when you have $300, or telling a cop that your friend isn’t drunk when he is, or even telling your scared, dying mother that there’s a beautiful place we go when we die—all of which happens after Mark develops the gene for lying—none of that is particularly funny. It’s sometimes poignant, and certainly ballsy, but it isn’t funny. Thus the movement of the film is from funny to less funny. By the end, there’s hardly any laughs at all.
“The Invention of Lying” is basically a magic realism film like “Liar, Liar,” and “What Women Want,” where an extraordinary thing happens to an ordinary man. Here the extraordinary thing—being able to lie—makes Mark more like us rather than less. He’s also a nicer guy than the main characters of those two films. The extraordinary thing happens to Jim Carrey and Mel Gibson so each will become a better man. It’s the “Christmas Carol” pattern: 1) jerk; 2) extraordinary thing; 3) OK dude.
Not here. Mark is actually a decent sort. Sure, he lies his way to riches, and, yes, initially he almost lies his way into bed with a beautiful woman, but at the last instant, because he’s a decent sort, he backs out. (Every guy in the audience is going, “Nooooooooo!”) Then he immediately does good deeds. He doesn’t wait for the third act. He steals money for a homeless man. He helps a bickering couple. He stops a neighbor from killing himself. And, yes, as his mother trembles at the prospect of dying, of not existing, he invents...heaven. So she can die happy. If anything, he’s trying to make the rest of the world as decent as he is.
There’s audacity in this. In a world without lying, there isn’t religion, there isn’t God. It’s up to Mark, pressed into service after word of “heaven” spreads, to invent these things. So he invents the Man in the Sky, and the Good and the Bad Place, and he tells everyone that if the Man in the Sky sends them to the Good Place they will get a mansion. Since people can’t even fathom the concept of lying, everyone takes everything he says as fact. One wonders why it doesn’t lead to a rash of suicides. We don’t have them because we have doubt, and, for true believers, suicide is against God’s will. But what’s to stop these folks? The undiscovered country is not only discovered, it’s mapped.
This element of the film, yes, is audacious, but everything else feels small and predictable. Why are magic realism films always like this? Mel Gibson can read women’s thoughts and he uses the power...to create a better ad campaign? Ricky Gervais can lie in a world where no one else can and he uses the power...to get his old job back? He’s a screenwriter for Lecture Films, which is exactly what it says it is. Films in this world consist of professorial lecturers sitting in armchairs and reading history to the camera. Mark has been stuck with the 13th century, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to exciting storytelling. But with his newfound power he creates a screenplay about aliens and adventures that everyone takes—must take—as fact, and reduces people to tears. It’s called “The Black Plague” and it’s a big hit and wins awards, but, beyond the insider-Hollywood stuff, what’s the point? He’s the most powerful man in the world! Whatever he says is fact because there’s no concept of non-fact. “I’m your husband.” “That’s my house.” “I’m the president of the United States.” Rob Lowe plays his nemesis? Mark could reduce him to nothing. “He’s been fired.” “He’s been evicted.” “He wants his head shaved.” Instead Mark suffers his presence throughout the film.
Worse, the film becomes about the most conventional of conventional tropes: getting-the-girl.
Anna (Garner) eventually comes to love Mark for his unconventionality but can’t bear the thought of having kids with him because they might look like him: i.e., fat, with snub noses. She wants a better genetic partner. Everyone does. Everyone is shallow in this world. Everyone goes out of their way to say the meanest things. Admittedly we are a rude, shallow species but is that all we are? I’m running through my day, thinking about what I’d say not only if I couldn’t lie, but, as here, and as in “Liar, Liar,” if I felt compelled to say every truthful thing that came into my head. So, yes, there’d be “Man, you’re annoying,” “God, you talk a lot,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” But there'd also be: “Man, you’re smart,” “God, you’re fun to be with,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” I don’t think we’re as bad as Gervais implies.
Critics are already setting up in knee-jerk camps. Kyle Smith of The New York Post says the film takes “outspoken atheism” and “dump[s] it all over an unsuspecting audience,” while hipster critics dig its attack on organized religion. But its greater attack is on human nature. In the world according to Gervais, the truth doesn’t set us free; it makes us jerks. Meanwhile, lies—including religion—make us better people. The film might as well be called “The Invention of Decency.”
There are some impressive cameos here: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, Jason Bateman. (We also had Jeff Bezos in the audience at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle.) But the film is too conventional for its unconventional premise, while its unconventional premise goes against the grain of what's funny. The truth may not set us free, but it does make us laugh.