You can't say Ricky Gervais doesn't at least try to make comedies that are unique, different. He's the chap who introduced the world to "The Office," the hit British series that lampooned office practices so well it prompted Hollywood to make its own popular version of the show. He's also the fellow who starred in "Ghost Town" (2008) as an unpleasant dentist who could suddenly see restless spirits all around him, and who the previous year appeared in "Stardust" as a shady, fast-talking fence.
With "The Invention of Lying" (2009) Gervais stars, co-produces, co-writes, and co-directs a cheeky, if mild-mannered little fantasy fable. Not that he didn't have help. Relative unknown Matthew Robinson came up with the story idea and wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Gervais liked the script so much, he took it on, helped rewrite it, and then asked Robinson to co-direct. So fairy tales still happen in real life to struggling filmmakers in Hollywood. Hey, it's Hollywood, a fairy-tale world, anyway. Why shouldn't they happen?
The movie's story takes place "in a world where the human race has never evolved the ability to tell a lie." It's some kind of alternate reality, or maybe it's a different planet from the one we know. It just happens to look exactly like our own in the year 2009. In this world, "everyone tells the absolute truth; there's no such thing as deceit or flattery or fiction. People say exactly what they think."
You can see the possibilities: "Oh, your baby is so ugly. It's like a little rat." And so on. The filmmakers divide the story into two parts: The first third or so deals with the way things have always been in this upside-down world of always telling the truth; the last two-thirds deal with what happens to the main character when he becomes the first person ever to discover he doesn't really have to tell the whole truth all the time. The character gets rich fast because everyone believes everything he says, and the bigger the lie, the more they believe it. They have no reason to doubt anybody's word for anything because nobody in history has ever made anything up.
The main character is Mark Bellison (Gervais), a self-described "chubby little loser...all alone at the bottom of the pile." He's a screenwriter for a movie studio called Lecture Films that, naturally, only produces historical documentaries. But his boss, Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor), thinks Mark is no good at his job and so is firing him, even though the film gives no plausible reason why. Mark's secretary, Shelley (Tina Fey), hates him, too, again with no explanation given, because we only see Mark as a fairly normal, nice guy. A handsome, successful, arrogant fellow screenwriter, Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), who appears to be everything poor Mark is not, hates Mark as well, again for no particular reason. And the beautiful girl Mark is trying to woo, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), thinks Mark is a dumpy nerd and doesn't want to see him again after their first date. In fact, Mark's only friends are a pair of losers like himself, Frank (Jonah Hill) and Greg (Louis C.K.).
Several problems with the film surface early. First, as I've said, the filmmakers never really tell us exactly why Mark is such a loser, apart from the fact that he's ordinary. Second, a steady stream of insults, put-downs, and unpleasing "truths" aren't particularly funny after the first few minutes of them. Third, no real society could function without some deceit or fictions, which is the whole point of the film but rather diminishes the credibility of even a fantasy fable like this one. While the story is a "what-if" and doesn't expect a viewer to question it, it's hard not to wonder just how such a world could actually operate. Politicians would be the first persons out of work, if they existed at all.
The "truthful" TV commercials in the film are cute, though, as is the name of old-folks' home where Mark's mother resides: "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People."
"The Invention of Lying" is a slow, dry comedy, which is exactly the approach Gervais intends. But for American audiences more used to slapstick, quick edits, and actors mugging their way through a farce, the film's laid-back humor may not feel entirely satisfactory. The film is not unamusing, but the wit is more subtle than a lot of viewers may want, especially with Gervais, who conveys most of his laughs through deadpan facial nuances and oddly halting speech patterns.
Mark's biggest fiction is making up a story about the afterlife, heaven and hell, God, and eternity. He does it to comfort his dying mother, but people overhear him and demand to know more. When he starts concocting additional details, he immediately invents religion, complete with ten commandments, and people see him as some kind of prophet or messiah. Overnight he becomes the most famous and important man alive. Although I'm not sure how people of faith would view this particular message since it is decidedly antireligious and flies in the face of the film's more romantic and sentimental elements, at least it's an attempt at satirizing something of importance.
In sum, "The Invention of Lying" is a sweet, gentle film, much like Gervais's previous "Ghost Town." The newer movie presents some obvious food for thought with themes touching on everything from Man's gullibility to the power of independent thought and imagination to the meaning of true love and true happiness.
However, its weakness is its lack of bite. It's too sweet and too gentle for its own good, too relaxed and easygoing, culminating in a syrupy ending. A more hard-edged attack might have gotten its points across more effectively, more memorably, and with more laughs. Satire works best when it skewers deeply, and "The Invention of Lying" too often barely scratches the surface.
There is probably not a thing wrong with this standard-definition, anamorphic transfer that wasn't wrong with the original print. Warner engineers reproduce the film in its theatrical aspect ratio, 1.85:1, but the video quality tends to range all over the place. Mostly, it's very ordinary, and that's what's wrong. The film's appearance reflects the bland society the movie represents, so there is nothing that stands out about any of it. Some scenes are bright, vivid, clean, and well defined; others look soft and flat, the colors subdued; and still others seem oversaturated, dark, overly contrasted, and glossy. Take your pick.
To tell you the truth (no lie), I wasn't much aware of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack in the film except when it got a little too bright and brittle. The film is a dialogue-driven comedy, so what could any soundtrack do but an efficient job replicating the film's midrange? Expect almost nothing in the way of wide dynamics, deep bass, or strong impact in any of the speakers, and only the faintest musical bloom in the surrounds.
The extras reflect the movie, mostly spoofs on the usual things we get as bonuses, which comes as a pleasant surprise after so much of the same. First, there's a little, six-minute featurette narrated by an uncredited Patrick Stewart called "Prequel: The Dawn of Lying," done in the style of the prequel to "2001," about cavemen inventing lying and giving us the world we know today. Next is another featurette, this one "Meet Karl Pilkington," seventeen minutes on Gervais's friend and co-host of the "Ricky Gervais Show"; that's followed by "A Truly Honest Making-of Featurette," seven minutes. Then, there are five additional scenes totaling about seven minutes; "Ricky and Matt's Video Podcasts," four of them totaling about ten minutes; and "More Laughter: Corpsing and Outtakes" (trying not to crack up during a scene), about five minutes.
The extras conclude with a series of trailers at start-up only; twenty-three scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
You've got to give Gervais credit for the imaginativeness of his first two big-screen films, "Ghost Town" and "The Invention of Lying." If both films are a little soft in their satire, well, chalk that up to Gervais probably wanting to offend the least number of people and sell the most number of movie tickets in his first outings. Can't fault him for that, but it would be fun to see what he could do if he took the gloves off and really went to work.