Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson | 100 mins | download (HD) | 12 / PG-13
I expect you know the setup for The Invention of Lying: in a world very much like our own — except for the crucial difference that people can’t lie — Ricky Gervais invents lying. It sounds a simple, strong concept. I like it.
Unfortunately, it immediately raises questions — ones the film doesn’t answer, but indirectly brings up. Like if people didn’t lie, surely they wouldn’t have euphemisms (see: faggot, queer)? Or a corrupt cop? Gambling would work, I suppose, just not well… but could they really fix the games, as stated? And would making a wish be a lie? These aren’t the only points.
But does any of it actually matter? I posit no. It would be a stronger film if they’d headed some of these off, true, but there are two points to be made. One, it’s not really setting out to be a 100% flawless world-without-lies — it’s our world, reflected back with lies removed. And two, it’s a comedy — the honesty of the corrupt cop or the casino box office is funny. On a deeper level, one might argue the film is exploring the lies we tell ourselves and each other — how harsh the world would be without them. This includes the invention of religion for a dying woman; how religion is just a lie we tell ourselves to make us feel happy — and it says this quite explicitly! In an American film!
I enjoyed the religious plot. I don’t think it’s misjudged satire, as some reviews have claimed; I think it’s pretty decent satire, in fact, especially for a US-based film. Obviously, therefore, I don’t think it’s the blasphemous work of the devil. Because it isn’t. It’s a decently amusing deconstruction of religion and the ideas that underpin it, coming from a rational perspective that can see through the obvious flaws and falsehoods in (specifically) Christianity.
A love story runs alongside all this. I’ve seen it described as a subplot — as it’s this half of the tale that both begins and ends the film, it’s difficult to view it as something so insignificant; equally, the lying and religious plotlines take up so much time that they can’t be seen as “just subplots” either. No, it’s a film of two concurrent halves, and while one is the invention of lying & religion the other is the love story. And it’s passable, but not as good. The honesty of the characters at least brings something fresh, but it’s mostly a standard implausible romance between a not-good-looking guy and a rather-attractive girl. One might also say that Jennifer Garner’s character is too much of a bitch to get the audience supporting her or their coupling, but that would miss the part where Gervais’ character helps her to grow as a person, to see beyond the surface gloss to the real people and situations underneath. OK, it’s not a groundbreaking message, but it suffices.
Gervais plays the same character he always plays. He’s not a great actor, but then he doesn’t pretend to be — you know what you’re going to get, more or less, which at least makes it easier to come to an informed decision about whether you’re likely to enjoy his latest work. My opinion varies depending which of his slight subtleties put in an appearance — for instance, as ‘himself’ (on a chat show or what have you) he’s usually too faux-immodest for my taste; in Extras, he’s likably frustrated. Here he errs more toward the latter, playing a “fat loser” who’s constantly reminded of the fact, enduring a downtrodden and bullied existence that I expect most people (with the natural exception of those hateful ‘perfect’ specimens of mankind) can identify with in some way.
Much of the supporting cast is a case of ‘spot the cameo’. If you’d like an I-Spy guide for when you watch, there’s (in alphabetical rather than appearance order, naturally) Jason Bateman, Michael Caine (apparently), Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Merchant, Edward Norton, and Barry From EastEnders. They’re all fine, though the “oh, look who it is!” factor occasionally overwhelms the story briefly. (In the case of Merchant and Barry it’s more “oh, should’ve guessed they’d turn up”.)
So The Invention of Lying uses its high concept to create a tale that both explores the lies we tell ourselves to get by, and draws the inherent humour out of our lack of honesty. And, despite a stock romantic side-plot, it does it pretty well.
And if you’d like another recommendation, Wikipedia informs us that “the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rated The Invention of Lying as “O – morally offensive” calling it venomous and pervasively blasphemous.” Well, you can’t say much higher than that.