By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009
"No one wants to see unreasonably handsome, clever people doing successful wonderful things. Who cares? Who wants to hear about how good someone else's life is? I want to see a struggle."
Thus spake British comedian Ricky Gervais just about a year ago. He was at the Toronto International Film Festival on behalf of "Ghost Town," a romantic comedy he starred in. But he was speaking about nearly every role he's ever played: the hapless middle-manager David Brent in the BBC series "The Office," toiling actor Andy Millman in HBO's "Extras" and now Mark Bellison, the hapless, toiling and hilariously mendacious protagonist of "The Invention of Lying."
If Gervais's first try at being a romantic leading man in "Ghost Town" came and went without much notice (a shame), with luck he'll hit pay dirt with his smart, funny new film, "The Invention of Lying." It combines the cheerfully subversive religious satire of "The Life of Brian" with the humanism that has often been submerged in Gervais's pricklier characters. Watching Gervais in "Lying," which he also co-wrote and directed, one gets the sense that we're finally seeing the man underneath the angry clown's greasepaint.
"The Invention of Lying" takes place in a nondescript town (charmingly played by Lowell, Mass.) in a world where no one has ever lied. After a brief explanatory voiceover by Gervais, viewers are plunged right into this alternate universe, as Mark shows up for a first date with Anna (Jennifer Garner) and she unblushingly informs him that she's been, er, getting to know herself in an intimate way. "I'm also equally depressed and pessimistic about our date tonight," she chirps.
Over dinner, Anna frankly lets Mark know that he's not fit, rich or handsome enough to be an appropriate partner, while a waiter blurts out his own stream-of-consciousness confessions ("I'm embarrassed to work here"). Like perky aphasiacs or precociously callous children, the people who inhabit "Lying" simply say whatever is on their minds, without self-consciousness or concern for other people's feelings. The upside is that they have no reason not to believe one another: They don't even have the words "truth" or "lie" in their vocabularies, because they've never needed them.
It's admittedly a crazy premise, but Gervais, who co-wrote the script with Matthew Robinson, sells it convincingly, then quickly and without explanation introduces the film's wrinkle: After Mark is fired and evicted, he goes to the bank to take out what's left of his money and suddenly acquires the ability to be dishonest. He informs the teller that he has $800 in his account (he doesn't); she assumes the balance on her computer screen is wrong and promptly gives him the cash.
What follows is an often surreal meditation on the morality of dishonesty, the ethical case for "flattery and fiction," as Gervais calls them, and the fundamental human need for cosmic reassurance. The nothing-but-the-truth world of "The Invention of Lying" is a mean, monotonous, drearily literal place: Walls are decorated with photographs of things like dart boards and door handles; the only entertainment comes in the form of dry, unembroidered historical documentaries. (The motto of Lecture Films, where Mark works as a screenwriter, is "We Film Someone Telling You About Things That Happened.") Even the signage is brutally frank: Mark's mother lives at a nursing home called A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.
But when Mark discovers the ability to make things up, the town begins to come alive. He writes an outrageous science-fiction fantasy and becomes a huge success, his newfound fame turning Anna's head. Then, when his mother is on the brink of death, terrified of the great beyond, he delivers a desperate, heartfelt soliloquy about the rich, happy afterlife, a speech that quickly spreads and makes him a latter-day prophet. When throngs of citizens arrive at his apartment building to hear more, he scribbles out some notes, pastes them onto two pizza boxes and delivers an improvised, Pythonesque sermon on the doorstep.
A cutting cruel streak runs through "The Invention of Lying," which features a stellar supporting cast and a few nearly unrecognizable serious-actor cameos. Tina Fey and Rob Lowe, as Mark's mean-spirited colleagues, continually refer to him as a fat loser, as does Anna, who blithely comments on the pathetic nerdiness of nearly everyone she sees.
One wonders, when people are ripping one another to shreds with the casual candor of water-cooler banter, if this isn't a candid glimpse at Gervais's own unrestrained id. Sure, he's making a plea to end the tyranny of appearances and superficial first impressions, but hasn't he been judging us all along, too, in his ruthless takedowns of "The Office's" drones and the self-deluding narcissists of "Extras"?
Like Gervais, the audience wants to see a struggle, which here comes down to whether unvarnished honesty or random acts of compassionate deceit will win the day. That alone makes for entertainingly high stakes, but by far the most compelling fight in "The Invention of Lying" is the tug of war between Gervais's own competing angels.
The Invention of Lying (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity, including some sexual material and a drug reference.