The gift Ricky Gervais has shown in his first two starring roles is not so much a gift of acting. He always looks, talks like Ricky Gervais – and he has not played characters that far from the screen persona we all know. But where Gervais has gone right is in choosing good projects, and good screenplays. Of course The Invention of Lying, his second such role (also in a type of romcom) is written and directed by him in part – so hey, easy to choose your own work. That said, The Invention of Lying, like movies such as Pleasantville or Bruce Almighty or even Gervais’ first movie Ghost Town start in the familiar vestiges of genre, but somehow sneakily end up making a substantially more interesting point than you expect.
In this movie, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter of stupefyingly awful documentary films. (the sheer depth of the awfulness is best for you to discover yourself) Of course they are awful, Bellison lives in a world where nobody tells lies – indeed, no suspense or fiction. Literally. Of course this sets up the most amusing of first dates when he goes out with Anna – who explains how she is out of Gervais’ league. Indeed, given that Anna is played by Jennifer Garner, the viewer does not require a lot of convincing. Indeed, the signs of a world without non-truth is very funny – the advertisements for Coke and Pepsi, the way a secretary talks to her boss, the way you describe the home the elderly end up in.
This set up is all funny, but Mark’s life is not so good. At the film company, he is assigned films of a certain century – and let’s just say he did not get one of the better centuries. Despite his attempts, his movies are not well received, certainly not as well received as his douchebag co-worker (hey, Mark says this!) Brad Kessler (of course if you want a douchebag – Rob Lowe is a hell of a choice). He gets fired, he cannot make his rent because he only has $300 to his name in the bank. So Mark goes to the bank, the system is down, so the teller asks him how much money he has in the bank. Suddenly, Mark has an inspiration and explains that he has $800 – just enough to pay rent. The teller just gives it to him. Does this strain credulity? Well, if we live in a world without lying – why would there be cynicism?
Mark is amazed. He has – well, there is no word for it! He tries to share this with his buddy (Louis CK – again, almost perfect casting) or a bartender, or a traffic cop (the casting and cameos in the movie are one of its pleasures). At this point, the movie works through some predictable cycles. Gervais discovers he can make a lot of money, especially at a casino – and it helps him get his job back at work, and of course he takes another crack at Anna. All of these scenes are amusing and well handled.
However, the movie takes a turn towards elevation when Mark is interrupted to visit his dying mother. She is afraid of the void, she is afraid of leaving this world. Mark then explains – that there is life after death. Of course, given that nobody has ever heard this tale (or any other fiction) – he suddenly becomes a worldwide religious phenomenon! The scene where he addresses the crowd that has gathered around his apartment is an exercise of evil genius – especially how long it takes Mark to explain what constitutes good and bad behavior to “The Man in the Sky”. What makes The Invention of Lying more than just taking cynical potshots are religion (Religulous *cough*) is that Gervais finds a way to develop the construction, then kind of rebuild it and look at it from all sides – all within what sort of becomes a sci-fi sort of romantic comedy. Indeed, he continues to have trouble to explain to Anna that she has free will and her main focus datingwise resolutely does not change for a long time. But (and I don’t think I am giving much away) change it does, and The Invention of Lying ends up as a wholly satiating entertainment.