There's a great comedy somewhere inside of The Invention of Lying, comedian Ricky Gervais' first film as writer/director (he shares both duties with Matt Robinson). I'm just disappointed that The Invention of Lying isn't that great movie. It's got strong, incredibly appealing performances, a sharp and intelligent script and an inspired idea as its premise; somehow, though, the elements don't quite come together the way you hope they will. It flirts with greatness but rarely achieves it (save for a few scenes or moments), ending up as the kind of movie that should be better than it is. Sometimes, that's more frustrating than a movie that's simply bad. A movie like that never stood a chance.
The StoryGervais stars as Mark Bellison, a slightly schlubby inhabitant of an alternate universe in which everyone says exactly what they are thinking; so incapable of lying are they that there isn't even a word for it. Mark is about to be fired from his job as a screenwriter (because there are no lies, there is no fiction; films are just lectures of actual historical events) and Anna, the girl he's got a huge crush on (played by the adorable Jennifer Garner, who does good work with a tricky part), won't take him seriously as a romantic partner because, well, she's out of his league (she tells him time and again that she doesn't want fat kids with snub noses).
After being evicted from his apartment, Mark takes a trip to the bank and is hit by a revelation: he tells the teller he has $800 in his account, despite the fact that the computer shows only $300. The teller, assuming its a technical error, gives Mark the $800. The first lie has been told. From there, it's easy to tell people "things that aren't" -- until Mark's mom is about to die and, to assuage her fears, he tells her that death isn't the end and that she'll be greeted by everyone she's ever loved and live in a mansion in the sky. The story Mark tells is overheard, and before long he's become a kind of prophet, speaking out to the world about the magical "Man in the Sky" and becoming a rich and powerful screenwriter. Better still, he becomes increasingly closer to Anna -- even if she still won't take him seriously as a partner.
That's a lot of premise to explain, but such is the danger of the "high concept" comedy. Unfortunately, Gervais and Robinson aren't willing to explore that premise to its fullest extent; the movie starts strong and eventually becomes a kind of indictment of religion. Then, just when you think the pair are on their way to crafting one of the best satires in recent years, they give up on the edginess and the movie settles in a standard -- though very pleasant -- romantic comedy where Gervais tries to get the girl. The Invention of Lying makes it to the edge of the cliff, but backs away just when it should be taking its biggest leap. Too bad.
It's especially hard to take when you consider how much the movie has going for it. Gervais is the ideal actor for the role (though he winds up a little too sweet and soft), and a number of smaller roles are filled in by comedy heavy hitters like Louis C.K. and Tina Fey. The passages where Gervais (an atheist) takes on religion are mostly inspired, and it's exciting to see a Hollywood comedy willing to satirize such a sacred (and these days untouchable) subject. He even plays fair; sure, Gervais is suggesting that all religion is comprised of made up stories, but he's willing to concede that it does serve a purpose. The scene where he comforts his mother on her deathbed is truly, truly moving, particularly in a comedy this light.
But the film is much better written and performed than it is directed, and that's ultimately the biggest flaw with The Invention of Lying. It's rather sloppily assembled and filled with bad editing and even worse extra work (one long sequence, in which Mark explains the rules of the Man in the Sky, is nearly undone by bad extras), and it's hard not to think about what the movie could have been in the hands of a better comedy director. Harold Ramis comes to mind, but probably because I was really hoping the movie would be the next Groundhog Day. The Invention of Lying still deserves a lot of credit for being what it is -- a comedy with far more on its mind than just gags -- only I can't help but feel a little disappointed with the end result. I wanted to love it, but could only like it. No lie.
- The Invention of Lying is rated PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference
- Running Time: 100 minutes
- Release Date: 10/2/09
- Studio: Warner Bros.