The idea behind “The Invention of Lying” — basically, in a parallel universe where everyone tells the truth all the time, a schlubby loser named Mark (Ricky Gervais) tells the first lie and winds up becoming rich and famous — might have worked as a five-minute comedy sketch, but it’s such a slender notion that the movie can’t even stick to its own concept. The result is a mess of a story that doesn’t follow its own rules and never reaches the comic heights you’d expect from the artists involved.
Gervais’ Mark works as a screenwriter for Lecture Films, a company that makes hit movies of professors talking about historical events. (No lying, no fiction, got it?) He goes on a blind date with Anna (Jennifer Garner) and charms her somewhat, despite the fact that she goes on and on about how unattractive she finds him and how he’s not remotely in her league. Because apparently people in this universe not only don’t lie, they also compulsively tell the truth all the time.
Much to the delight of rival Brad (Rob Lowe) and embittered secretary Shelley (Tina Fey), Mark gets fired because the company doesn’t want to make his script about the Black Plague. Facing eviction, Mark goes to the bank to take out his remaining savings — but with the computers down, he finds himself overstating his balance so he can withdraw enough to pay his rent.
Once he starts lying, Mark finds he can have anything. He gets his job back by claiming to have found a long-lost script, retelling the story of the Black Plague with aliens, ninjas and naked Amazons. After Mark invents the notion of heaven to soothe his dying mother (Fionula Flanagan), he discovers that everyone wants to hear more about what happens after we die, so — in a plot twist that will no doubt garner some controversy — he makes up a deity and the idea of sin to go along with it.
What he really wants is for Anna to marry him, but even though she loves him, she won’t, because he’s not a good genetic match. And that’s where “The Invention of Lying” went off the rails for me — what does eugenics have to do with telling the truth? And why does Anna smile her way through a mom-imposed courtship with Brad when she doesn’t really love him? What happened to all that compulsive truth-telling from the beginning of the movie?
There are a few funny bits sprinkled throughout — the senior-care facility where Mark’s mum lives has “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People” written on the building, and the ads for Coke and Pepsi reflect the alternate society’s love of total honesty. But the premise of the movie never goes anywhere particularly interesting, even with the potentially outrageous subplot regarding religion as an outgrowth of chicanery.
Given the selfish and pig-headed characters that Gervais played to perfection on “The Office” and “Extras,” the two brilliant sitcoms he created, it’s disappointing how focus group-approved “likable” Mark is. He uses his abilities to do things like help the homeless and make sick old people smile, which may be noble, but it’s not very funny.
On British television, Gervais and his collaborator Stephen Merchant (who has a cameo here, as do several recognizable faces) had full creative control and were able to come up with darkly hilarious characters and situations. I can only assume that, working within the Hollywood system (Gervais co-wrote and directed “The Invention of Lying” with Matthew Robinson), this comic genius has been subjected to reams of notes and suggestions and edits and changes that wound up completely neutering his work.
And if that turns out not to be the case, I certainly hope Gervais will have the decency to lie about it.
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