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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2009

Playing God

Gervais' intermittently hilarious 'Invention' doesn't always hit its target, but comes just close enough

The Invention of Lying
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
Screenplay: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Bateman
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Opened October 2, 2009
(out of four)

Rarely do we ever attach any significance to a film's credits. That is, if we even notice or remember them at all. But in the case of The Invention of Lying, any student of comedy will recognize instantly the font on display over its opening credits - if not by name, then at least by association.

It's called Windsor, for whatever it's worth, but mostly it's become synonymous with the great Woody Allen, who has used the font to open his movies for the last 35 years. It has significance in this case because it signifies Ricky Gervais' own ambitions for the film, his feature-length writing and directing debut. It has the ambition of the kind of grand comic fantasy that Allen perfected. Think Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Sleeper, Love and Death and Deconstructing Harry.

Indeed, the premise of The Invention of Lying - a man invents the world's first lie - sounds like something Allen might have penned. But no, this is pure Gervais, and the fact that it's far from his best work (the original The Office and its fraternal companion, Extras) probably speaks more to its ambition than it does to a shortage of material.

Flaws and all, it's refreshing to see a high-concept comedy that dares to philosophize a bit, dares to talk about the nature of God and religion and free will and human nature, and the roles we play in altering or affecting all of the above. Roger Ebert observed that the film is more subversive than it lets on, and he's right. The fact that Gervais takes us in certain directions is enough for it to be considered something of an accomplishment, even if some of its destinations are ultimately a bit too familiar.

When you think about it, a movie taking place in a world without lies is a natural fit for Gervais. In his work, the truth always seems to have a way of slithering out, even when it doesn't want to. His characters reveal exactly who they are and what they mean, regardless of whether or not it's what they actually say. The characters he himself plays often come around to the truth rather sheepishly, caught overcompensating for blatant insecurity or saying the wrong thing in front of the right person.

So you could say he's always had a way of getting to the truth no matter what - typically in a brilliantly confrontational manner that elicits discomfort both from the audience and the characters. In The Invention of Lying, Gervais basically just cuts out the middleman, creating a reality very much like our own, except that the lie has never been invented.

Coca-Cola's TV commercial consists of a series of purely accurate statements about the quality of the product and the reason for the advertisement, ending with the catchy slogan, "Coke: It's Very Famous." In a stroke of genius I almost feel bad about revealing, but can't resist, a nursing home is not called a "retirement community," but "A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People." True intentions can't help but be revealed on dates, job interviews, run-ins with the police.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) has the unenviable task of being a screenwriter in a world without lies - meaning he exhaustively researches history books and essentially translates them into long essay form before they're given to an "actor," who reads the essay on camera. That's entertainment! But he's not very good at his job - as his boss and co-workers naturally make no secret of telling him. He gets fired and is about to be kicked out of his apartment, when with a sudden evolutionary leap forward, he gets the bright idea to tell a lie.

But whatever wealth and fame this new ability brings him, it doesn't seem to change the fact that his love interest, Anna (Jennifer Garner), is much more interested in finding a logical genetic match (like that, of, say, Mark's sinister arch-rival, played by Rob Lowe) than in pursuing a relationship with Mark. After all, their potential children might end up being "little fat kids with snub noses."

Gervais did an excellent job creating an aesthetic from behind the camera in his TV projects, but - along with co-director Matthew Robinson - he has some way to go in handling the transition to feature-length material. Here, he falls back on montages that feel slight rather than impactful, as well as plot standbys that reveal their wear and tear over the course of 100 minutes or so.

Having said that, it also features certain ideas, sequences, one-liners and performances that are among the funniest of the year. Naturally, it's no secret that Gervais can come up with brilliant comic moments. That he may have been striving for a bit more with this film is a credit to his ambition, even if he doesn't completely reach it. The moments in which he does pull it off, however, are worth it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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