Invention of Lying, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/02/09 00:00:00

"Untruths And Consequences"
5 stars (Awesome)

Last year around this time, some of you may recall the brief appearance of a film entitled “Ghost Town,” a comedy-fantasy about an ordinary dope who suddenly developed the ability to communicate with the dead and found himself pressed into service into helping them settle their lingering personal issues before fully moving on into the afterlife. Although some people thought it to be charming enough, I was pretty much annoyed with the whole thing and that was almost entirely due to my disbelief that British comedian would choose to make his first major stab at big-screen success (following a slew of cameos) in the kind of bland and utterly innocuous project that any mid-level sitcom star could have handled without there being much of a difference in the end product. After all, this was the guy behind such modern comedy masterpieces as “The Office” and “Extras” and while he only served as an actor on the film, I just expected something bolder and smarter and certainly funnier from him. For his latest film, “The Invention of Lying,” he has taken more of a hold of the creative reins--he has co-written and co-directed it with newcomer Matthew Robinson--and right from the start, it is obvious that this is the type of big-screen endeavor that his fans have been waiting for--a fairly sublime farce that takes a brilliantly simple conceit and not only manages to spin it out in ways that are original, intelligent and incredibly funny but also manages to get at the more serious and thought-provoking ideas that are bubbling right under the surface.

The film takes place in a world that is not unlike our own, save for one significant detail--none of the inhabitants of this world have developed the ability to tell even the slightest untruth. In theory, this would seem to be a lovely idea but as we discover in the opening scenes as the premise is established, it isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Waiters inform you that your date is way out of your league and that they helped themselves to your drink. Movies consist entirely of people sitting in chairs reciting the unvarnished and completely verifiable details of old historical events. Worst of all, if you are someone who isn’t a chiseled-jaw knockout with a great job and a big bank account, there are literally billions of people around who are perfectly willing to remind you of your station in life. Such a person is Mark Bellison (Gervais), an average schnook who is lacking in regards to looks and finances and whose job as a screenwriter is in jeopardy because he has been assigned to come up with ideas based on the events of the 13th century, a time generally regarded as a bummer by everyone. When we first see him, he is going out on a blind date with the gorgeous Anna (Jennifer Garner) and while she concedes that he is charming and fun to be around, it would be pointless to date him because his genetic stock would stick her with pudgy, snub-nosed kids who would be social pariahs. To make matters worse, Mark goes to work next day and is fired, much to the glee of his nasty secretary (Tina Fey ) and handsome lad screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe). When he is evicted from his apartment after his landlord hears about the firing, Mark goes down to the bank to withdraw his last $300 to rent a moving van and accidentally asks the teller for the $800 that he needs for rent. Since the computer is down, the teller just gives him the $800 and Mark realizes that he has told mankind’s first lie.

Although best pal Greg (Louis C.K.) fails to grasp the significance of this development, Mark is not and he soon uses this mysterious power, which only he seems to possess, in order to score some quick cash at the local casino (at one point, he tells the manager that he hit the jackpot but the machine didn’t go off), win back his job with a screenplay that reveals many heretofore unknown facts about the era of the Black Plague (turns out there were a lot of spaceships zipping around back then) and make new headway with Anna, who finds herself gradually feeling fonder towards him despite the whole genetics mismatch. Things come to a head when Mark visits his mother on her deathbed and, in an attempt to console her fears of passing on into a void of eternal nothingness, he tells her of the beautiful afterlife awaiting her that he claims to have been told of by an otherworldly presence that he refers to as The Man in the Clouds. However, word of his story gets out and suddenly the entire world is eagerly lapping up his every word, even the seemingly contradictory ones, about the afterlife, morality and why the person responsible for such much happiness in the next world can also be responsible for so much misery in this one. Alas, this still doesn’t help him that much when it comes to Anna--even as they grow closer and closer, the pressure from society to have genetically perfect children drives her away from Mark, whom she genuinely has feelings for, into the odious-but-handsome arms of Brad.

It is easy to see how the basic premise of “The Invention of Lying” could have been transformed into a raucous comedy--sort of an inversion of the Jim Carrey hit “Liar Liar”--and while it might have worked on that level, it quickly becomes evident that Gervais and Robinson are interested in simply creating a broad laugh machine that pretty much evaporates from memory as soon as the end credits roll. After setting up the conceit in the breathlessly hilarious opening 20 minutes, the film becomes more interested in developing the relationship between Mark and Anna than in trying to figure out newer and wilder ways of exploiting the lying conceit. As a result of this approach, not to mention the marvelous performances from Gervais and Garner, the film allows us to become emotionally involved with them to such a degree that viewers will still find themselves engrossed in what is going on between the two of them even after the main gimmick begins to run its course. There have been countless films, for example, that have climaxed with someone about to get married and someone else interrupting the ceremony in a last-ditch effort to stop it but this is the first one in recent memory where I found myself caring about what was going to happen. The theological twist that comes up is especially inspired in the way that it mixes gentle but pointed satire--aimed less at religion as a whole and more at those who wholeheartedly find themselves instantly embracing any concept, no matter how odd, just because someone tells them to do so. Although I suppose that some people may find themselves offended by this particular plot development (which is presumably why there is no hint of it in the commercials.

While the serious side gives the film an unexpected dramatic heft that may surprise some viewers, “The Invention of Lying” is first and foremost a comedy and an absolutely hilarious one to boot. The opening 20 minutes, for example, may be one of the funniest stretches of filmmaking that you will experience this year as it lays down its conceit via big gags (such as the ways that Coke and Pepsi are forced to advertise in a truth-only environment), sly sidebar gags (including a sign outside a nursing home announcing it to be “ A Sad Place for Frightened Old People”) and what may be the most memorable entrance line in recent cinema history courtesy of Garner. And while the rest of the film may not live up to that opening segment in terms of sheer hilarity, the subsequent jokes manage to remain smart and funny without ever delving into cartoonishness. Even the slew of celebrity cameos that crop up throughout the film work because they don’t simply rely on the presence of the famous faces to score laughs--they have actually been given funny material to perform. While it might be stretching it a bit to suggest that “The Invention of Lying” is an instant comedy classic on the level of “The Office” or “Extras,” it certainly earns the right to be compared to them because of its intelligence and wit. More importantly, it suggests that the genius that Gervais brought to those television productions can be transferred to the big screen without losing too much in the translation and if he can keep it up, he could well become one of the great comedy filmmakers of our time.

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