Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Invention of Lying

We so rarely get new movies. I mean movies where the thing is full of ideas and really creates something original. Often when we do, the movie is rejected for being too weird or different. Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying is like a really original movie that tried to make itself more palatable by wrapping itself in the comfort of a romantic-comedy. It takes place in a world where everyone tells the absolute truth, always. Gervais’s Mark Bellison, our hero (although he’s often referred to as “fat loser” by many folks in the truthful universe, including by Gervais when delivering the opening narration) is down on his luck. He’s about to be fired by his boss, he has a not particularly successful date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), whom he’s had a crush on for years, and he’s about to be evicted from his apartment. That is until he is able to tell the world’s first lie. When he’s trying to describe to his best friend Greg (Louis CK) what he’s done, “I was able to say something…that wasn’t.” is the best he can come up with, since the words don’t exist in this world to describe something that’s not true. Even the Pepsi signs in this world read “Pepsi, when they don’t have Coke.”

Mark goes on a series of adventures trying out his new skill, including winning at the casino “Yeah, I hit the jackpot on this machine, but nothing came out.” “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, sir, let’s get you your money.” And trying to sleep with beautiful women “The world’s gonna end unless we have sex right now.” “Do we have time to get to a motel, or should we just do it right here?” Ultimately, everything starts to go Mark’s way when he writes the first fiction screenplay. Movies up to this point are only readings of historical events, with titles like “Napoleon 1812-1813” and “The Invention of the Fork”. So even though Mark’s script has aliens and a ninja army defeating a giant robot dinosaur, everyone is wondering how they’d never heard of this event instead of thinking it’s a made up story. But most impactful to this world, we see when Mark’s mother is laying in a hospital bed dying, Mark, desperate to say something to make her feel better, comforts her by accidentally creating religion.

This is where the movie really takes off, in its extended satirizing of religion. People congregate outside of Mark’s apartment so that he can tell them more “about what happens after you die.” Mark quickly invents the idea of “a man in the sky who controls everything.” But that raises more questions than he ever thought it would answer. He has to explain that the man in the sky is responsible for all the bad things in the world. “Is he the one who gave my mom cancer?” “Yes.” But the man in the sky is also responsible for all the good things in the world too. “So he’s the one who cured my mom’s cancer?” “Yes.” “So the man in the sky is kind of a good guy, but also kind of a prick?” “Yeah.” It starts out wonderfully, as everyone takes comfort in knowing about the man in the sky, but Mark gets bummed out seeing all the people that have stopped living their lives and are really just waiting to die so that they can get their mansion in the sky. They stop listening to what they want, and instead wonder what the man in the sky wants for them.

Gervais, despite being a staunch atheist who has written about his views many times over the years, thankfully doesn’t mock this newly religious world. He understands what kind of relief and comfort the idea of the man in the sky and knowledge of what happens after you die would give people. “It’s a great proposition” as he said in a piece he once wrote for the Wall Street Journal. He lets that be there in the movie, but he good naturedly jabs at the ridiculousness of it as well. The contradictions inherent in it. But Gervais seemingly didn’t set out to make a movie that takes down religion. He just had a great idea for a comedy. And the movie is not so much a defense of lying, or positing that lying makes the world better, necessarily, but it shows what always telling the truth would look like if taken to its logical end point. A person feeling depressed is told by Mark that everything will be okay. “It will?” they take it as fact in this world, because why wouldn’t it be, and their happiness makes them feel better. Is that so bad, even though Mark can’t know if it’s the truth or not? Isn’t creating that happiness a good thing?

The cast Gervais assembles is really wonderful. Not just himself, Jennifer Garner, and Louis CK, but also Rob Lowe as Mark’s nemesis, Jeffrey Tambor as his boss, Tina Fey as his nasty secretary, Jonah Hill as his suicidal neighbor, and cameos by Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, and others. Really though, this movie shines because of Gervais and Garner. Gervais makes for as terrific a comedic leading man on the big screen as he did in the UK Office and Extras on the small screen. His likability tempered with sarcasm, blustery delivery, and all that wonderful Gervais energy and intelligence. And in his scene with his dying mother, Gervais is surprisingly effective in his big emotional moment. You see Mark’s goodness, his innate decency and love for his mother. It’s a terrific and unexpected bit of real acting from Gervais.

Jennifer Garner is even better as the love interest. We see as the movie goes along how Anna is changed by Mark. Garner beautifully shows herself waking up to the unexpected cruelty that inhabits this truthful world. Even if she keeps telling Mark that they can’t be together because they would have “short little fat kids with stub noses” like him, you still like her, and you see her developing to become more awake to the below-the-surface realities of people. She still acts according to the rules of her world, but Mark changes her with his love and friendship. She dates Rob Lowe’s arrogant and abrasive Brad because he’s the best “genetic match” for her, but Garner gives little moments that really add up to show Anna’s awakening. It’s a surprisingly affecting performance from Garner, beautifully subtle in a role that could’ve been nothing much in the hands of a lesser actress.
Is the movie perfect? No, it’s not. The plot kind of meanders along, and it loses its steam a bit towards the end. Some of the truthful dialog gets in the way of the story, or is a bit superfluous to it. Lowe’s Brad is a caricature, and not a real person (which could actually be said about a lot of characters, and maybe it’s because they sell the telling the truth thing so much). Visually, although some of the areas filmed are nice to look at, there’s no visual invention going on here. Gervais (along with co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson) doesn’t seem to have the visual eye of a comedy genius like Woody Allen, who is as much an overall master filmmaker as he is a comic one. Gervais is more in line with someone like Albert Brooks, who is less likely to visually impress you as he is to intellectually stimulate you. But I’ll take a flawed movie like The Invention of Lying, with great ideas and some ambition, over any cookie cutter movie that may have fewer missteps. There aren’t any choices or developments that take the movie off the rails or anything here, just ones that may not work as well as the stuff that really hits big. Critics weren’t impressed when the movie was released, and audiences barely came out to see it, but The Invention of Lying is a terrific movie that deserves more attention.

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