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As a movie, The Invention of Lying is a lot like its protagonist. In it, Ricky Gervais plays Mark, a man who’s not much to look at on the outside. He’s repeatedly described by those around him as a pug nosed little fat man and it’s true, he’s not pretty. Neither is Invention of Lying, a somewhat clumsily directed and edited film which doesn’t always fit together as well as it might have and seems to struggle with even the most basic filmmaking concepts like, for instance, putting together a decent montage. It doesn’t look like much, but just as it is with Mark there’s something more going on beneath its misshapen exterior. It’s smart. Really smart and even more importantly than that, it’s brave. The Invention of Lying dares to go where few other movies have ever dared to go, straight into the atheist brain of Ricky Gervais.
It takes place in a world much like our own, except for one very key difference: No one lies. It’s not that humanity has dedicated itself to honesty; lying was never invented. They don’t even have a word for it. Whatever someone says simply is and the idea of saying something that isn’t, is literally beyond the mental grasp of anyone on planet Earth. What’s great about Invention of Lying is the meticulous way it extrapolates this concept to it’s logical conclusion, faithfully constructing a world in which people only know how to speak the absolute truth. There’s no such thing as flattery or for that matter, tact. If someone’s ugly you tell them so because, of course, it’s true. But it runs much deeper than that. Without lies there is no fiction and movies, for instance, have been reduced to men on camera narrating actual historical events.
The film, co-written and co-directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson goes even further than that and in doing so tries to say something daring. In a world without lies, there is no religion because of course, at least in Gervais’ point of view, religion is really just a big lie told over and over again. This results in a heartbreaking scene in which Mark’s dying mother professes an abject fear of nothingness and the newly fib-empowered Mark, in a moment of weakness, comforts her with a lie about after death mansions. That lie, overheard by hospital staff, is spread and soon the world wants to know more about this mansion filled heaven and the man in the sky who takes care of you after death.
In part, The Invention of Lying becomes a commentary on the nature religion, but seems dissatisfied with only being that. It has more to say and Gervais’ script struggles to fit it all in. And that’s really the movie’s greatest sin: trying to be too many things all at once. It’s also a romance movie with physically unattractive Mark struggling to win the heart of Anna, his dream girl, in a world where people without imagination rarely look beneath the surface. It’s also a comedy of course, with great gags involving Marks’ lying ability and the strange reactions of brutally honest people around him. It’s also sentimental, a film dealing with the very real human fear of death, failure, and abandonment. It’s also sort of gimmicky, with scores of distracting celebrity cameos shoehorned in throughout the film, perhaps in an attempt to get Ricky’s latest the attention his unfairly overlooked last effort, Ghost Town, never got. It’s too much and Invention of Lying struggles to make it fit.
It doesn’t always work, but you have to admire The Invention of Lying for trying. It’s a ballsy film, one unafraid to say things which, while they might not be altogether popular, are in sync with the things Gervais actually believes. It’s full frontal Ricky Gervais, it’s everything he cares about crammed into one movie, and some of you might want to flinch away. Yet though it’s often bulky and bumbling, and even though all of the script’s parts don’t necessarily mesh together, The Invention of Lying is filled with many brilliant moments. It’s awkward and ungainly, but more often than not The Invention of Lying is also touching, moving, and flat out funny.