In an idealized world — say, not unlike the one in the film — The Invention of Lying would have had more to go on than just a cute premise, amiable humor, and A-list cameos. But the film begins to buckle maybe half an hour in, and it’s largely due to the fact that we’re not in an idealized world, and the fictional one being portrayed isn’t quite as clever as it wants to be. The gimmick is that the narrative unfolds in a world where no one has ever evolved the ability to tell a lie or be deceitful, which leads to plenty of predictable jokes about people’s appearances and the general superficiality of their truth-bound universe. But two problems arise quickly and never resolve themselves. First, there’s a world of difference between being unable to lie and being unable to refrain from uttering every foolish or selfish thought that runs through your head. The former implies always speaking the truth (“It’s raining outside”) while the latter is about snap judgments and ego (“I think you’re fat and ugly”). Second, even accounting for the seemingly forced nature of verbalized shallowness, how is it that no one in this universe ever found true love based on mutual emotional attraction? For the film, speaking the truth means relentlessly pursuing partners of equal or greater wealth and physical beauty; does that mean that relationships based on deeper connections are lies, or that if given the choice, we wouldn’t hamper ourselves in such a way? Either choice is brutish and cold, and also demonstrably untrue. Oh, there was so much on paper that made The Invention of Lying look like a winner: solid cast, fun premise, and loads of potential. But too much of the film smothers star Ricky Gervais’ considerable charm (that’s saying something), and chunks of it feel like a horrible marriage between a pair of bad Jim Carrey comedies, Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. Gervais’ film is all about a man who gets what he wants in a world where everyone’s “honest” but no one’s kind. It’s a Pyrrhic victory.
Opening up with simple credits (done in Woody Allen’s favorite typeface), upon which Gervais’ character actually comments, the film shifts to the world where no one lies. The film is narrated briefly at the beginning and end by Mark Bellison (Gervais), a struggling screenwriter at Lecture Films, a studio that makes movies in which the best readers of the day recite historical anecdotes on screen for the audience. In the opening scenes, Mark’s on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), who makes it clear they won’t be sleeping together based on Mark’s income and appearance. Again, it’s a cute idea, but the film finds itself stuck in the same epistemic nightmare as Carrey’s Liar Liar because some of the statements are simply unprompted opinion. Mark is also dealing with work troubles, and he’s fired for not coming up with any good stories from his assigned historical era, the 14th century.
Out of a job, broke, and a hair’s breadth from eviction, he glumly heads to the bank to close his account and use his small remaining funds to rent a truck and move out of his place, but with their system randomly down, they have no way of knowing how much money he needs. That’s when he gets the idea to lie, except he doesn’t know the word for it. All he knows is that he’s figured out how to “say something that isn’t,” and sure enough, when he tells the bank he needs $800 instead of the $300 he knows he has, they assume responsibility for the glitch and fork over the cash. This is when the obligatory wish-fulfillment montage kicks in, as Mark and his buddy Greg (Louis C.K.) head to a casino, where low-level lies are all it takes to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mark also realizes he can now basically command a woman to sleep with him, though he backs out when he sees just how easy it is to control people.
This is also when the plot proper would usually engage, dealing with Mark’s return to work telling lies and passing them off as truth, pursuing Anna even as she rebuffed him in favor of his attractive coworker, Brad (Rob Lowe), etc., all the while toying with the fun of making your own rules and the peril of having them followed. And a lot of that does happen. But the screenplay from Gervais and Matthew Robinson, who also co-directed, gets thrown off track when it tries, inexplicably, to become a religious satire. When Mark visits his ailing mother in the hospital, she tells him she’s afraid of dying and entering an eternity of nothingness, so he makes up a story about a peaceful afterlife. His invention gets the attention of the other doctors and nurses, and word spreads until Mark is being hounded by the news media to reveal what he knows about the supernatural, at which point Mark begins telling them about “the man in the sky” who decides what happens to everyone, good and bad, and how they need to behave if they want to live in a mansion in the sky when they die. Suddenly the film goes from being a highish-concept comedy to a skewering of modern religion, and the bite Gervais focuses on himself is turned onto the history of religious practices. It’s jaw-dropping in its suddenness and disappointing in the way a weak screenplay becomes even weaker by losing its focus. Was the film conceived as a way to hypothesize about a man who invents a version of God, or did that pop up in the writing process and ensnare everything else? In other words, is this a detour or a development? It doesn’t feel like either. Additionally, the conceit of the film now adds the existence of a higher power to its list of lies about the nature of relationships, which makes for a hellacious downer of a comedy. (There are also some groaner sight gags in the satirical segments that would make Mel Brooks shake his head in disgust.)
The rest of the film concerns, well, the rest of the film. It just does what it does for the rest of its 100 minutes, riffing on story instead of moving through a plot, however weak. Mark just keeps wanting Anna, and telling people about the man in the sky, but the core of the film feels farther and farther from what’s on screen as events progress. There are some genius moments that explore the film’s concept with wit and skill, like the bland Coke salesman in a commercial distractedly asking people to keep buying the drink even though he doesn’t really care for it or see its value. And the idea that movies are just recitations of fact read by a skilled orator is a fun way to reimagine our culture in another universe. But too much of the film is like that: fun moments that flit away, leaving behind just a curious mix of moderate comedy and weak satire.
Gervais is a wonderful comic talent, and his work on “The Office” and “Extras” alone makes him indispensable. He’s also proven he can be successful in comedies with more dramatic overtones, as in 2008’s surprisingly engaging Ghost Town. But his persona isn’t enough to support such a disjointed script that strikes out in half a dozen directions without the energy to see one of them through. That’s what makes the film’s slackness so maddening; this isn’t a mild-mannered comedy from a nobody. This is a slip from greatness. Similarly, it’s fun but sad to see quite a few other ranking stars, like Lowe and Tina Fey, show up and support something that could have been sharper. (I won’t spoil the cameos, but their presence does tend to make the movie feel like a Funny or Die vid with an epic budget.) The Invention of Lying is on occasion as superficial as some of its characters, and a tough reminder that not all ideas are good ones. The truth hurts.