Starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner and Rob Lowe. Directed by Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson. Rated PG-13 (for language including some sexual material and a drug reference). 100 minutes.
With THE INVENTION OF LYING, Ricky Gervais has created an entertaining parable that may not send precisely the message he has intended. No matter, there are laughs and food for thought, however you might come out.
Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson, gives us a recognizable world with the notable exception that no one knows how to lie. That doesn’t simply mean falsehoods are unthinkable. It means that everyone blurts out the truth, even when discretion would dictate otherwise. When Mark (Gervais) shows up early for his date with the luscious Anna (Jennifer Garner) she volunteers that she had not only been getting ready, but that she had been masturbating. TMI (too much information), as the kids would text today.
The early portion of the film examines the ramifications of its premise. When Mark learns how to utter false statements, everyone immediately accepts them at face value. It doesn’t matter if he’s trying to withdraw more money than he has in his account, telling a woman that if they don’t have sex the world will end, or telling his friend that he is black. The fact that he has said means it must be true.
Obviously, fiction is impossible in this world, so movies consist of experts lecturing people on historical events. Mark is a writer of such films, but since his expertise is in the area of the Black Plague and the 13th century, no one is really interested. When Anna blows him off and his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) fires him, Mark discovers that the ability to say things that are not so gives him a leg up.
This is where the film gets into a potential controversial area, unless viewers are willing to understand it differently than Gervais may have intended. When his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is dying, he comforts her by telling her that she’s going to a place where she will be reunited with friends and family, and living in a great mansion. The public wants to know more, and Mark ends up creating a story about “The Man In The Sky” who rewards those people who do good and punishes those who do not. It’s easy to take this as a criticism of religion which may be how Gervais intended it. Yet when we hear the ridiculous questions Mark gets asked, we see it’s really a critique of those who deny free will. People who refuse to think for themselves are the proper subject of scorn, not simply those who act on faith.
“The Invention of Lying” is amusing, if not quite the breakout film Gervais may have desired (and deserves). It does make us think about all the ways in which expressions other than verifiable facts serve us well – from sparing feelings with “white lies” to the truth of our lives expressed in fiction to the unprovable tenets of religious faith. Honesty is the best policy, but as Gervais’s film makes clear, sometimes we need something more than just the facts.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.