Imagine a world where no one can tell a lie. Ricky Gervais (who co-wrote, co-directed, and stars) creates such a utopia and then makes himself the only exception, the special one. He then proceeds to repeatedly have everyone call him a loser, until they realize that he’s the real winner, and everyone lives happily ever after (or at least his character, Mark Bellison, does).
That is essentially the sum and substance of The Invention of Lying. Much like Edison and Einstein, Bellison (a play on Edison and Bell?) chances upon his discovery quite by accident. In his case, the stimulus was desperation. Faced with eviction and unemployment and insolvency, Bellison does something involuntary, and finds something wonderful happening.
Gervais needs to be commended for his inventiveness. Taking the basest of human instinct and creating an alternate reality around it, Gervais weaves a story that is unmistakably original and potentially brilliant. Especially in such a story though, how you execute each scene increases exponentially in importance. Somehow, Gervais misses the play here, and what results is a long experience of tedium. It isn’t that he doesn’t try, in all earnestness, to form a complete story, it’s just that he doesn’t have that much of a plot, and his meandering through the mess of Bellison’s life to find one is an arduous watch.
In this world of Gervais’ creation, of course, there can be no Church, no concept of science, because everything just is. There isn’t even a word for truth or lies, because there isn’t a distinction. Everything you say is, or, like Bellison says, his power is to “say something that wasn’t.” Instead of examining the implications of the lack of such fundamental institutions as religion and reasoning, Gervais chooses to go the rom-com route and study the ramifications of the lack of free will. This he translates to a lack of feeling and automated, reasoned decision-making, and a painfully oft-repeated “search for a genetic match.”
Jennifer Garner is brazen and brave for trying to flesh out a character, but with a paper thin character sketch, does nothing significant. Gervais has a fantastic role to play with, but really, and maybe it’s just me, he’s so inherently unlikable that it is difficult for anyone to root for him. There are a bunch of interesting cameos thrown in here as well, from the likes of Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, but none really hit home. There is a lack of sincerity, or perhaps of identification, and instead of being honest, they come across as mean and unlikable.
Also, perhaps for comic effect, Gervais not only makes it impossible for anyone to lie, but also to contain thoughts, and everyone is sharing what they’re doing, or thinking, and whilst highly comical in theory, for the duration of the 100 odd minutes this picture lasts, can become quite an ordeal. In essence, I would say, that whilst this is just me and my sheer inability to enjoy the humour of Gervais (I’m amongst the very few who enjoy the American adaptation of The Office infinitely more than the British one), The Invention of Lying just isn’t smart enough to not need to be hilarious. Not every comedy gives you a stitch in your side, but it’s rare that you find yourself cringing more often than smiling, and when that happens, you know you’re watching the wrong movie.