Invention Of Lying

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Ricky Gervais has always teased us with his projected degree of self-awareness, daring us to judge to what extent he’s simply a cheeky chancer from Reading who’s ‘getting away with it’. Even if The Office gave him unquestionable artistic credentials, he is someone who’s easier to laugh at than like. It’s a reception he actively encourages in his faux-ignorant stand-up and, arguably, perfected with David Brent.

Yet The Invention Of Lying boldly flips this on its head by making Gervais’s character Mark Bellison sympathetic, even lovable, in a way that Brent, even at his most pathetic, could never be. And Gervais only has to completely deny human nature to achieve this.

In this high-concept comedy, flattery, deceit and the use of humane white lies are unknown until Bellison accidentally blurts ‘something which is not’ and discovers that in a world where nobody lies, the lying man is king, or even messiah.

Repeatedly characterised as a ‘loser’ hailing from a long line of no-hopers and perpetually reminded by women that physically ‘I’m too far out of your league’, Gervais puts Bellison’s painful self-awareness centre stage. A screenwriter of historical lectures, given that fiction is beyond the realms of this alternate universe, Bellison has been saddled with the dull 1300s – the Black Death account. Soon to be fired by his boss Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor), so nakedly uncomfortable with wielding the axe that he exacerbates the impending trauma, Bellison is belittled by his secretary (Tina Fey) and mocked by his nemesis, the good-looking, successful screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe).

Out to dinner with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), who enjoys his company in spite of herself, Gervais ratchets up his patented comedy of excruciating embarrassment. Degraded by his date and the waiter, the next day Bellison is fired and threatened with eviction. But a chance glitch in the bank computer and the wiring of his brain lead to him receiving more money than he has, and suddenly, he’s invested with a unique superpower – the ability to lie. Although he can’t convince his best friend Greg (Louis CK) or anyone of the magnitude of his discovery, he quickly realises the influence it affords him to accrue money and sexual favours, not to mention ridiculously rewrite history and earn plaudits as a filmmaker.

At heart though, he remains fundamentally decent and uses his ability to make people feel good about themselves, reassuring his dying mother of the afterlife. Overheard by the gullible medical staff, he is hailed as a prophet and the word spreads. Still, he can’t make Anna love him for who he is, to see beyond the superficial. He despairs of losing her to Kestler.

Gervais’ earlier, funnier Hollywood lead in Ghost Town ultimately failed because the film couldn’t reconcile the cruel, belittling elements of his comedic persona with the happy ending demands of mainstream rom-com. Writing-directing for the first time on celluloid, albeit in tandem with Matthew Robinson, he has greater control. If his forthcoming Cemetery Junction evokes a very specific and personal time and place for him, Seventies Reading, the Invention of Lying has delivered Gervais the keys to Hollywood’s dream factory and he’s snatched them hungrily, freeing himself from the rigours of subtle observation and stuffing his movie with American comedy royalty.

A quick nod from Christopher Guest seems to denote ‘you’re one of us’ to both Bellison and Gervais, even if it’s built on a succession of escalating whoppers. Certainly, it’s the self-aware oik in Gervais that casts Fey as his secretary but has her roundly abuse him. Andy Millman spent an entire series of Extras trying to acquire everything he desired and another realising it wasn’t what he wanted after all. Bellison completes the journey in 100 minutes.

Is The Invention Of Lying as funny as his best work, though? Seldom, although there is one hilarious, self-reflexive moment that marks the apotheosis of his knowing arrogance and humour. The film’s premise allows for some blatant product placement that you can’t help but applaud the sheer cheek of, ridiculousness elevated to the sublime, topping Wayne’s World’s treatment of the same gag.

On old age, death and what philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe called the life-lies we console ourselves with when confronted with existential despair, the film is undoubtedly at its strongest. There’s a decidedly Pythonic scene in which Bellison tries to explain ‘the man in the sky’ to the masses on his front lawn and watching world, inevitably tying himself in contradictions.

The endless cameos, with appearances from Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, an uncredited Edward Norton, and, best of all, Stephen Merchant and Shaun Williamson amuse, though there’s a creeping sense of diminishing returns, especially as some are more gratuitously deployed than others.

Unable to lie, every character bar Bellison is necessarily one-dimensional, rather excusing Garner’s pretty, baby-focused cipher (though you wonder what Fey would have done in the role for example), while the volcanic CK is disappointingly reduced to a puppyish slob. Gervais and Robinson’s realisation of a world without lying is inconsistent – Anna seems to smile forcedly on a number of occasions and could a bent cop really exist? – but it’s still a fun premise. The humour is gentler than could have been hoped, but there are some fine moments.

I came away from The Invention of Lying with a greater warmth towards Gervais and looking forward to more of his movies.

Reviewed by: Jay Richardson
September 30, 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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