After creating and directing The Office and Extras with Stephen Merchant, and making inroads to Hollywood with guest star cameos in the likes of Stardust and Night At The Museum, it was pretty inevitable that Ricky Gervais would take the directorial reins for a movie sooner or later. And The Invention of Lying sees Gervais venture once more into high concept rom com territory, however unlike Ghost Town, this is a film both co-written and co-directed by the man himself.
The movie tells the story of Mark Bellinson (Ricky Gervais) , another chubby little loser character, who lives in a world where every one tells the truth. However, after his life starts to crumble around him, Bellinson discovers the ability to tell porkies. So perhaps now, with this unique ability he can reverse his fortunes and, more importantly, win the heart of the girl he loves, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner)…
Now this being a rom com, unsurprisingly he does. And along the way there are some good laughs and a good deal of charm. Gervais himself turns in the finely crafted performance you’d expect, Rob Lowe is reliable support as the bad guy Brad Kessler, although he is just retreading his role from Wayne’s World here, and Jennifer Garner displays some neat comic chops. Plus there’s a sprinkling of guest star cameos that include appearances from Christopher Guest, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tina Fey.
However despite all the talent involved, The Invention of Lying falls somewhat flat. You can tell that in its heart this offering from Gervais and co pilot Matthew Robinson is aspiring to the heights of Groundhog Day, and like that classic of the high concept rom com genre it’s seeking to tell a heart-warming tale that offers humour, insight and humanity. But unfortunately, despite its good intentions, The Invention of Lying ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
The first problem is with the high concept itself. In the created world of the movie, everyone is brutally honest all the time but the execution is somewhat fudged. For example, often we see characters not only being honest but also just seemingly saying the first thing that comes into their heads. And while it’s amusing to see a care home for the elderly called ‘A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People’ it doesn’t seem quite logically correct that such an institution would have this as a name rather than the typical ‘Green Meadows’ type sobriquet. At the risk of being over analytical, I’d suggest that this gag would work better if the sign had sported the usual cliché name with the ‘A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People’ as the tag line.
Yes, that is a small petty point but it is very illustrative of the failings of the film, namely that it doesn’t fully explore its concept, or really run with it as far as it could or should. Another example is the running jokes centring on the advertisements of this honest world – while we have a few great sight gags, there just aren’t nearly enough of the them. As Crazy People (1990), a Dudley Moore rom com, demonstrates there is huge comic potential here – this movie has as its high concept an ad man who starts doing completely honest adverts, such as “Men who drive Porches get blowjobs” and “This film will not only scare you but fuck you up for life!”. Now the modern world is considerably more saturated with non-stop pimping than back in 1990, and if anything advertising has become more ridiculous, so there was considerably more scope than a brace of jokes about the cola wars. Considering how pervasive advertising is, really this movie could have as packed with sight gags as Airplane.
Also considering that this film is the work of Gervais, whose two television series are classics of so called ‘cringe comedy’, you’d also expect that the premise of a world of honesty would yield a rich source of comedic material. But largely, other than facile tactlessness, the film never really grasps the potential of the idea. The Invention of Lying is distinctly lacking the barbs and claws of The Office and Extras – there’s none of the watching through your fingers social awkwardness or the brutally sharp observation and dissection of character failings.
Certainly the rubrics of writing a rom com no doubt reined in the scabrous vein of comedy Gervais has proved himself to be a master of in his TV and stand-up work but surely there was still plenty of room to manoeuvre in. The television Gervais would no doubt have countered Garner’s remarks that he looked like a chubby loser with a knowing deconstructive remark along the lines of “yes but you look like a man!” - the movie Gervais however merely shrugs and looks downbeat.
Where the film does get slightly controversial is The Man in the Sky plot twist. Basically Bellinson accidentally invents religion while attempting to use his gift to comfort his dying mother. Needless to say this has caused the predictable teacup storm from some quarters of the Christian community. However, to be honest apart from the implicit suggestion that religions are based on lies, there very little to cause offence here and I suspect, in a strange parallel with The Golden Compass, the film may well receive additional flack from the acolytes of Richard Dawkins for not going far enough. However, the real problem here, regardless of where you stand on the belief debate, is that the Man In The Sky plot doesn’t really go anywhere and the consequences of Bellinson effectively becoming a messiah just aren’t followed up and consequently has very little real bearing on the main plot.
In the movie, shortly after discovering his new found ability, Bellinson quizzes his drunken buddy and a bar tender about what they would do if they had his power and finds the answers thin on the ground. And I can’t help seeing this as a reflection of Robinson and Gervais in the writing stages. The bones are here for a very funny and intelligent film but the pair have failed to get any meat on the bones.
And this is also holds true for the film’s main story, the romance between Gervais and Garner. As much as I hate to use that common cliché about a character’s “journey”, it is very applicable here. Unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, or even Moore in Crazy People and Jim Carey in Liar Liar, Mark Bellinson doesn’t learn anything throughout the film. Nor does his character develop in any significant ways – the ability to fib brings him nothing but money and isn’t very crucial to winning the hand of the girl he adores. Equally the character of Anna is presented as being so shallow and obsessed with appearances, you do wonder what Bellinson is sees in her, particularly when he talks about her being the “kindest person he knows”.
The Invention of Lying isn’t a terrible film per se, and despite having ragged on it so much I would stress that it does deliver some laughs. But generally it has the air of missing opportunity hanging over it. Quite possibly it was a case of playing it too safe and gentle for his sophomore Hollywood outing, but you have to wonder about the absence of usual collaborator Stephen Merchant. From what I know of the personalities of both men, I can’t help feeling that had Merchant been riding shotgun, the honesty all the time concept would have been better thought through and the arc of the romance would have been more fully rounded out.
JIM MOON, 9th October 2009