Ricky Gervais Can Only Get So Far, Or So Funny, With 'The Invention of Lying'

Ricky Gervais can only get so far, or so funny, with The Invention of Lying

The Invention of LyingNs plot hook sounds like a pile-up of Jim Carrey/Tom Shadyac concept comedies. The assumption is that there isnNt much crossover between the Liar, Liar and Ricky Gervais fan bases. GervaisN fuzzy parable exists in an alternate universe where nobody has made a word for “truth” because nobody tells anything but—until one man discovers how to say “things that arenNt.”

That man is The OfficeNs auteur, also co-writer/co-director here. As in that calling-card work, Lying is interested in self-deception as a survival technique. The undressed, undeceptive, utterly honest world is no Eden: flat lighting, earth tones, beige bachelor flops, blank-walled offices, bland daytime barrooms. The lack of ornament extends to this worldNs idea of entertainment. No lies means no fiction. Moviegoers attend Lecture Films releases, in which actors recite on a historical topic from a teleprompter.

GervaisN Mark is a Lecture scriptwriter, assigned the unpopular, plague-dreary 13th century—a job to fit his raw deal of a life. HeNs single, with the podgy build that drives girls wild, and a smushed, porcine nose. On doomed dates with Anna (Jennifer Garner, perkily sadistic), she misses no chance to tell him this is plain bad genes. Truth-telling is compulsive, conquering the most basic acts of self-censoring. A waiter introduces himself with “INm very embarrassed I work here.” A roadside sign advertises “A Cheap Motel for Intercourse With a New Stranger.” For a middle-aged also-ran like Mark, who needs all the help he can get, the flatteries and shadowed truths of seduction are impossible. Honesty is so clearly not MarkNs best policy that he suddenly, inexplicably snaps, learns to fib his way out of a mess and keeps going.

The main difference between our world and his—which, we learn, has produced its own Napoleon, industrial revolution and a familiar Western Massachusetts—is that itNs never had any Judeo-Christian tradition. One may wonder, then, where MarkNs 13th century is being dated from. The casual introduction suggests you shouldnNt think too hard about the premiseNs inconsistencies, but maybe the filmmakers shouldNve thought harder. By designing LyingNs universe so closely parallel to our own instead of reimagining history on truth serum, they overlook punch lines for the movieNs repetitive setup.

Basically a good sort, Mark uses his gift to ameliorate the sting of the matter-of-fact on the meek—nobody here has heard the old “EverythingNs going to be all right” before, and itNs a revelation. In a moment of unction, Mark improvises the comforting idea of heaven, along with a Man In the Sky making up the guest list. Playing to a more credulous public than Jesus, he doesnNt need miracles, and the viral spread of TV news makes him an overnight prophet. Scripture is re-enacted as broad farce. Mark delivers his Ten Commandments on pizza boxes; heNs resurrected from his depression with Christ-like shag and beard. At times, it feels as if Gervais has made a freethinker Lecture Film of his own, as two-dimensional in its smug secularism as Bruce Almighty was in its vacation Bible-school pandering.

When the jokes based on universal social ineptitude wear with use, the film remembers unrequited love. Mark fawns for Anna, who wants to want Mark but honestly wants the alpha seed of a predatory Rob Lowe. The presence of Jonah Hill—mercifully tranquilized as a suicidal neighbor—recalls School of Apatow comedy, as does LyingNs lesson in looking past surfaces, delivered by the ultimate pairing of a knockout girl and the schlubby mate she has learned to see the beauty in. Not exactly Marty, this.

Gervais plays schlub beautifully, testing and discarding a dozen ineffective inflections, sweetly suppliant in hurt. As with celebrity guest-heavy Extras, he has called in favors here—Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton all show up, all wasted as dull foils. Likewise, Lying brushes more big ideas than commonplace comedies, but hasnNt taken those ideas through enough drafts to work out their implications or—harder still—make them killingly funny.

The Invention of Lying was co-written and co-directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; and stars Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K. and Rob Lowe. Rated PG-13. Countywide.

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