Movie Review – Invention of Lying, The
– Summary –
Director : Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis CK, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Jeffrey Tambor, Fionulla Flannagan.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Aspect Ratio : 1.85:1
Synopsis: In a world where humans never developed the ability to lie, one man suddenly does. Instantly, his crappy life is transformed into a whirlwind of creativity – all designed to capture the heart of the woman he loves.
What we think : A great concept for a film, ripe with ideas for skewering social norms, becomes a drab, melancholy chore: Gervais is funny enough, and he carries the film well, but the overall nasty nature of the material works against him.
Imagine a world where nobody could lie. Hard? The Invention of Lying attempts to do just that, and for the most part succeeds in its brief, yet remains a one-joke film hammered into oblivion by an uneven narrative and genuinely unlikeable characters. Ricky Gervais, Golden Globe host de jour, co-directs, co-writes, and stars in this “romantic fantasy comedy” that attempts to hold a mirror up to social taboos, while making pointed commentary on religion, dating, friendship and work. I think the basis of this film is fantastic, such a great concept with plenty of potential for truly great comedic material. You’d think somebody with the razro sharp comedic intellect of Gervais, and his co-hort in this endeavor, Matthew Robinson, would create a sharp, satirical alternative to real life with plenty to say – instead, this film reminded me of the single-note score to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. A single note, hammered home time and again, offering little nuance, or respite from repetition, is the musical equivalent to The Invention Of Lying. The comedy, while certainly sharply written, never deviates from the single-minded concept it exhibits, and as a result, growth within the story seems destined to failure. That being said, the film is worth at least one look.
The world as we know it is different – in an parallel world to our own, where humanity has never developed the ability to lie, society is stuck in a perpetual rut of predictability. Without the ability to lie, creative thinking is non-existent, meaning things like art, film, music and television exist purely to portray history to the masses as entertainment. Films, for example, are historical records read on-screen by “celebrity” actors, purely factual and missing any creativity whatsoever. Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) writes historical narratives for the 13th Century time period, otherwise known as the century of The Black Plague. After being fired by his boss, and rejected by the woman he has eyes for, Mark’s life spirals out of his control, until he makes the unthinkable decision to… not tell the truth. Realizing that he has the ability to say something that isn’t – because the words “truth” and “lie” don’t exist in this world, Mark’s world opens up to enormous possibilities. He becomes something of a messiah figure, after comforting his dying mother (Fionulla Flannagan) with his imaginative description of “heaven”, although once more, the concept of a deity or an afterlife is unknown to the world; Mark hones his ability to deceive others by trying to do good, although often for his own benefit. The woman who rejected him, Anna (Jennifer Garner) is hell-bent on finding a perfect genetic mate for children, leading her to find Mark’s rival screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) more suitable than Mark. Spurned, slipping into depression and realizing that being able to lie isn’t always the right answer, Mark must face up to the fact that while he may not be able to single-handedly change the world, he can change himself for the better.
The Invention Of Lying is a clever film. It’s a high-concept comedy, with a tinge of romance (although, if I was brutally honest, what on Earth Gervais’s character find attractive in Garner’s snooty, uppity Anna is beyond me) and some brutally funny moments of spot-on sarcasm about society. Yet, for all the hilarity dotted throughout the story, there’s long stretches of uneventful, frustratingly slow, character development. Now, normally this would be something I’d herald as one of the better things in any film, but with Lying, the script spends more time trying to develop characters that – unfortunately – can’t develop due to not being able to lie, and it’s this element that brings the whole movie undone. The somewhat nasty nature of absolute truth telling, warts and all, begins to wear out its welcome quite quickly (which I wouldn’t have expected) and by the end, you just want somebody, hell anybody, to be able to feel the emotional freedom enjoyed by Mark the majority of the movie. While Mark’s the main character, the sheer inability of Anna to develop beyond her single character arc limits the emotional connection between her and Mark, and consequently, them and us.
Lying is also a spot-the-cameo film, thanks to the drawing power of Gervais himself – folks like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton (among others) are sprinkled through the film to add a dash of legitimacy to Gervais’ first directorial effort. Alongside various comedy and acting luminaries, leading man Ricky Gervais does a solid job as Mark, the Everyman placed into an extraordinary situation. Whether you find Gervais a comedian to be avoided or not, there’s no denying his ability to deliver a performance when it counts, and there are times during this film when it does count. Jennifer Garner is probably the weakest link in the film, as far as comedy chops goes, and her screen chemistry with Gervais is non-existent, something I found disappointing. Rob Lowe seems to be the only one in on the joke, and he plays it up superbly, while hangers-on Jonah Hill and Louis CK do their best to do their least. Jeffrey Tambor always fails to disappoint, and usurps every scene he has with Gervais for the sake of great comedy. Somehow, and this is the strangest bit, the cast all deliver their lines and performances with utmost skill, and yet the film still feels devoid of passion – perhaps reflecting the ambivalent characters through the movie. Indeed, most of the characters in the film are generally unlikeable, almost as if they’re designed to make us hate them – Mark being the one exception – and if that’s the tone Gervais and Co were aiming for, they skewered the bullseye and left room for more. I found it so hard to enjoy any of the characters in this film, and my enjoyment of the film waned the further things went along.
Heavy-handed snarkiness aside, I’m hard pressed to recommend The Invention Of Lying wholeheartedly. There’s moments which make the film worthwhile – such as the truly hilarious sequence when Mark delivers a referential Ten Commandments to a waiting crowd – but the overall truth-at-all-costs mantra of the film works against the story rather than for it. While the idea of the film may seem hilarious, and indeed it actually is, the reality is that telling the truth regardless of the outcome is borderline dull. While a few laughs spring up when kids get called fat and people are told they’re just shit, The Invention Of Lying remains a curiosity in the career of Ricky Gervais, and one I doubt I’ll be revisiting any time soon. There are some laughs, you just have to go a long way to find them.
What others are saying about The Invention Of Lying:
Dan at Top 10 Films made this assessment: “The film isn’t half as funny as it should be, or half as intelligent as it thinks it is.”
Colin Biggs, over at Never Mind Pop Film took more out of the film than I did: “The fact that Lying isn’t a strict comedy probably did it in for a lot of people expecting this to be a full-on comedy that instead aims more for your head than your gut. “
Nostra at My Film Views comes straight out with it: “Despite the initial laughs, this movie left me disappointed and it’s a movie which I really don’t recommend watching.”
The guys over at Movie Brothers thought it was okay: “It’s a clever concept and goes into places that are very honest, for instance there is no religion or creative thought.”
Stevee at Cinematic Paradox didn’t think much of it: “I wouldn’t say The Invention of Lying worked as a funny comedy, it was underwhelming and contrived, falling flat of the expectations set by it’s top notch comedy cast. Unfortunate, because this could have been a cracker of a comedy.”
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