At The Picture Show
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
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
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
Read more by Chris Bellamy