Submitted for your approval: a place of “too much information.” What if full disclosure was the way of the world? Are there certain things we’d be better off not knowing about ourselves, each other, even our existence? And is a lie the ultimate excess of “information,” or a necessity for a happy existence? These and many other questions arise in The Invention of Lying, a provocative comedy from writer-directors Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson.
Gervais--the British comedy star who co-created The Office--stars as Mark Bellison, an overweight, powerless schlub living in a universe that differs from our own in one significant regard: humanity never evolved the ability to lie. Rather, people are compelled to spill out the truth with no intervention from the superego. As such, there are no softened blows, euphemisms never occur, advertisements are blunt statements of fact, and fiction is an entirely alien concept. Bellison’s screenplays, for a studio called Lecture Films, consist of an Alastair Cooke-esque narrator (Christopher Guest) sitting in an easy chair and reading from historical accounts. Sadly, Bellison is saddled with the 14th Century, a bland period mostly distinguished by the Black Plague.
Promised by his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) that his firing is imminent, Mark has a sinking feeling that his date with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner) can’t possibly end well. She admits at the outset that she has no physical attraction to Mark and is “alternately depressed and pessimistic” about the date. She’s way out of his league and knows it; though she humors him with her presence as a favor to a friend, she’s looking for an “ideal genetic partner,” not a father likely to sire “fat, snub-nosed babies.” Besides, Mark’s imminent firing, which he’s compelled to disclose, subtracts another desirable quality: financial security.
When the sacked Mark goes to the bank to withdraw his paltry savings, inspiration strikes. What if he were to say something that wasn’t? In a historic breakthrough, Mark claims to have a few hundred more dollars in the bank than he actually does. Since the teller assumes he must be telling the truth, Mark succeeds in pulling the wool over her eyes. Like a superhero discovering a power, Mark considers what he wants. Sex and money top the list, but his selfishness turns toward a desire to improve the world around him: yes, with great power comes great responsibility.
There’s clear comic potential in the film’s high concept, and a fair amount of it is realized. Gervais gives another strong performance (including a convincing scene of wrenching emotion), and he’s surrounded himself with distractingly prominent talent, including at least three bona fide movie stars in cameo roles. It’s a shame that the comedy tends to be repetitive, and more funny clever than funny ha ha. Still, The Invention of Lying succeeds in being a daring satire by positing Mark as a Messiah whose lies are a healing truth, whose inventions of a “Man in the Sky” and an afterlife placate a sheep-ish populace.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]