One of the things that baffles me is that there are still people who have not heard of Ricky Gervais.
The pudgy British comedian was the brains behind the original "Office" television series and serves as executive producer on NBC's hit adaptation. He earned an Emmy award for his work as boss-from-hell David Brent on the original series, although I've met many who are surprised to find that there even was a BBC version - even though it is, in many cases, far superior to its American counterpart. Fewer have seen his equally funny work on HBO's "Extras," familiar with Gervais only for his supporting roles in the "Night at the Museum" films.
Gervais may finally get the recognition he deserves with "The Invention of Lying," a new comedy co-written and directed by himself and Matthew Robinson. Following his work in the sweet-but-toothless romantic comedy "Ghost Town," Gervais has finally found a script that caters to his particular brand of wit, satire and self-deprecation.
The comedy takes place in an alternative universe where human beings have not evolved the gene for lying. There are no white lies, exaggerations, false modesty or omission of facts in favor of tact. It's perfectly normal to remark how ugly someone's baby is, tell that ugly blind date that there is no hope for the evening or let your boss no how much you loathe him. If you're smart, attractive and likable, the world's pretty easy for you because everyone wants to hire you, date you and tell you how great you are.
Mark Bellison (Gervais) is none of those things. He's a screenwriter at Lecture Films (in this world, movies are historical lectures); Mark's subject is the 1300s, particularly the Black Plague. In the course of one day, Mark is fired from his job, brushed off by a woman (Jennifer Garner) who likes him but doesn't want "fat, snub-nosed kids," and evicted from his apartment. Heading to the bank to take out enough money to satiate his landlord, Mark suddenly has the idea to say something that isn't true. Because this is a world where lying is completely unheard of, no one suspects anything is amiss and Mark suddenly finds the opportunity to shape his world the way he wants to.
This set-up could easily lead to a one-joke film in which Mark tells lie after lie until they spiral out of control, leading to a predictable confession and comeuppance in the end. Refreshingly, Gervais and Robinson aren't interested in a morality play, but rather a look at the way humans have ingrained lies in every area of behavior and how susceptible people are to the power of suggestion.
What's interesting is how the film suggests that some forms of lying are actually necessary to a functioning and sane society. There's a surprisingly touching scene between Gervais and a suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) in which Mark's false empathy possibly saves a life. Much of the movie's dark humor comes from the very brutal truth that reinforces Mark's belief that he's a loser doomed to die alone and poor. A rigid adherence to facts is also what prohibits Anna (Garner) from falling in love with Mark, as she has always been told about the importance of finding a good genetic match, while love involves so much more than just mere facts and surface belief - it demands a sense of mystery and faith.
And I haven't even mentioned what occurs when Mark begins to talk about mansions awaiting people after death and The Man Who Lives In the Sky.
It's not surprising that Gervais, an atheist, would seek to incorporate religion into a story about lying. And I assume that many will be offended with the film's worldview, in which religion is only invented to make people feel good and stop being afraid of death. What is surprising is that Gervais manages to handle this major plot point - in which Mark basically invents religion - without ever becoming mean-spirited or snide, instead suggesting that religion is a good thing that gives people hope while still leaving enough teeth in the satire to take a dig at those who would use faith for their own selfish motives.
The film is sharp and deftly-written but never feels condescending, mainly because Gervais so skillfully builds an empathy with his character. In a world of no lies, a financially unstable man with poor genetics is not going to go many places. Gervais creates such a likable loser that the audience quickly forgives his lies because they want to see him succeed; even when he's taking a dig at religion, there's always a playful smile on his face that disarms most of the offense.
Comedy is the perfect venue for dealing with the subjects presented in this movie, as humor quickly removes any pretension or sense of superiority.Gervais has made a career out of playing bumbling liars ("The Office") and pudgy losers who can't catch a break ("Extras"), so it's not much a stretch for him to play Mark. Still, Gervais manages to surprise the audience by creating what may be his most-likable character yet and showing a new range during a tender deathbed scene between Mark and his mother.
It seems nearly every comedic actor in Hollywood wanted to help Gervais succeed with this film, as several minor characters are played by recognizable faces. Louis CK is particularly funny as Mark's best friend and Rob Lowe continues to cement his role as the go-to creep as Mark's screenwriter nemesis. Serious thespians Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton even contribute funny cameos. The supporting characters deserve a lot of credit here for helping to make this world believable; in a world with no lies, there's no room for subtlety, masking emotions or false sincerity. The deliveries, always a bit too matter-of-fact and naive for comfort, go a long way in selling the film's premise. Of particular note is Garner, who displays a clever comedic timing as Anna; the film's first scene, when she and Mark meet for a date, is a hilariously awkward tone setter.
The intelligent script and skilled comedic actors go a long way to making this film succeed, although it begins to fall apart in the third act when the original premise is almost completely forgotten in favor of following standard romantic comedy formulas; there's no real conclusion to the film's big idea. Gervais and Thompson are skilled writers - and Gervais, equally, as an actor - but their visual style still needs to be honed a bit more before their next outing. But those are small blemishes on a film that is otherwise a breath of fresh air. I wouldn't even bring them up ... except I don't want to lie to you.