Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais' first major feature as writer, director and star works with an interesting premise, but the man who created arguably the landmark television program of the decade proves sadly tame when handed a film-sized budget. Together with newcomer Matthew Robinson, he never delivers on his notion of a world where people cannot lie. However, Gervais brings his sense of naturalistic comedy and affecting sentimentality to The Invention of Lying, buoying what in anyone else's hands would have been an abysmal failure.

Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a low-ranking screenwriter for the company Lecture Films. Like the other writers, his scripts are simply condensations of historical events, not performed but recited on-screen by readers. In a world where people can't lie, Mark has it rough: fat, middle-aged and underpaid, his co-workers openly profess their disgust and women ignore him in droves. A friend sets him up on a date with the gorgeous Anna (Jennifer Garner), whom he charms with his humor but has no hope of attracting.

Just as he finds himself out of a job and facing eviction, Mark manages to tell the world's first lie. It's so unprecedented that he can walk into a bank and request whatever amount of money he wants and the tellers assume that, when he overdraws, the computers are simply malfunctioning. After all, whatever he asks for must be in his account. Suddenly, the most pathetic slob in the world has potentially limitless power.

Interestingly, however, Gervais keeps the film subdued, which works both to its credit and detriment. Upon fully realizing what he's now capable of, Mark immediately attempts to pick up a lady for quick sex, but he stops when he understands that what he does qualifies as rape. An American production of the same film would have followed through this bit as a joke, never pausing to let the severity of the situation sink in, but for Gervais to direct the gag into a sober revelation proves that the comedian brings layers and intelligence to his writing. Of course, other aspects of Mark's evolution are fully humorous; he returns to Lecture Films having "discovered" a long lost historical parchment recounting alien visits and interstellar romance. This document even prophesies that Mark will discover it one day and put his antagonistic secretary (Tina Fey) and rival (Rob Lowe) to shame.

About halfway through the film, though, the film splinters into two wildly different movies that never reconcile into a cohesive whole. Now armed with what basically amounts to a superpower, he doubles his efforts to win Anna. It's disappointing that Gervais would steer his premise into rom-com territory, given that no part of a pitch of this movie would suggest it should go down this route. Unwilling to use his gift to dupe Anna into sleeping with him, Mark instead relies on his new-found lateral thinking to charm her. Anna is an underwritten character, constantly sticking to her matter-of-fact desire for genetically ideal children even as she clearly falls for this dope, but Garner makes her work out of sheer charisma: she has one of the most expressive faces in the biz, and she can say entire chunks of dialogue simply with her doe eyes or a lip twitch. The subplot feels too much like Gervais wanted to ease into mainstream, made-for-Americans filmmaking, but anyone who's watched the finale of either The Office or Extras knows his gift for earned emotional payoffs, and at times the romantic aspect of the film is genuinely moving though it stays firmly within stifling genre restrictions.

The other aspect of the film is deeper, darker, funnier and probably would have been the sole focus of Gervais' script had it been part of a television series or a film he never expected to get much attention outside of Britain. The people of this world do not believe in an afterlife, so Mark's mother speaks on her deathbed about her fear of ceasing to exist. To calm her, Mark tearfully spins a vision of heaven to ease him mom's passing. Word gets out, and suddenly people across the world look to Mark for his knowledge of what happens after death. As formulaic and tepid as the subplot involving Mark and Anna is, Gervais makes up for it by openly postulating that religion could only come about through lies. The scenes involving Mark's creation of religion are wickedly satiric, particularly when Mark must endure an exasperating Q&A in response to his commandments.

Elements of these two subplots overlap in places but never in ways more substantive than setup for each other, resulting in meandering stretches in the second half that drag the film. Gervais assembled a cast that rivals all of his acquisitions for Extras combined, including Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., even the great Christopher Guest, but he never does anything with them. Their appearances, even the meatier parts like C.K.'s or Lowe's, feel more like name-recognition cameos than performances. There's also a tenuous logic to the film's premise: people can't lie, yes, but many offer up their true feelings without being asked for it. Gervais, a naturalistic writer and sharp observer of humanity in his television projects, opted for the safe route here -- his next film, Cemetery Junction, reunites him with writing partner Stephen Merchant and sounds from released information like something far more in line with what we know of Gervais' humor -- and as a result it disappoints. Yet Gervais, never trained as an actor, has such a natural presence on-screen and such a real yet inimitable method of delivery that he makes the thing not only watchable but often fun, even outside the raucous first half hour and the biting religious segments. Plus, there's something admirable about a mainstream film that, in a time when a -- according to reports from the Toronto Film Festival -- tame biopic of Charles Darwin can't find a distributor because of controversy, deals with evolution as if it was a fact. Well, a fact that everyone accepts, anyway.

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