Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cathing up with "The Invention of Lying"

The concept of "The Invention of Lying" is a great one for a dopey comedy, but star Ricky Gervais -- who also co-wrote and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson -- is a little more ambitious.

In the movie's world, people always tell the truth. It's not that they choose to refrain from lying: They're actually physically incapable of it. Except for one guy, who stumbles across the power of saying "something that wasn't" -- that's the only way he can describe it, since there's no word for lying, and not even one for truth, since everyone assumes that everything everyone says is.

Not only that, but they actually volunteer the truth at every meeting. So for example, when chubby, homely Mark (Gervais) goes on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), it's immediately clear to all parties involved that she's way out of his league. The waiter at the restaurant they go to even says so. Anna also lets Mark know that she was masturbating right before he showed up at her door.

Now, you might think it strange that people who cannot lie would not at least refrain from always telling the truth -- even when it's unwelcome, unpleasant or hurtful to the person they're telling it to. But in the film's world, lies of omission are apparently just as damaging. So Mark's interactions are a ceaselessly funny string of scenes in which people put him down, call him and loser and insult him.

"Lying" has a host of cameos by big stars, such as Tina Fey as Mark's secretary, who greets him by telling him how overqualified she is for her job, and that she'll be spending her morning looking for another one on Craigslist. She's also told everyone who calls him not to leave a message, since he's about to get fired. About this, she is absolutely telling the truth.

Mark's occupation is a movie screenwriter. But in a world where no lies exist -- and therefore, no fiction -- films consist of narrative recitations of actual history. Since Mark was assigned the 14th century, which basically consisted of a lot of dreariness and Black Plague, his movies do poorly.

After his boss fires him, Mark is about to evicted from his apartment. He goes to the bank to pull his savings out to rent a truck for his stuff, but the computers are down so the teller just asks him how much money was in his account. Some weird synapse fires in his brain, and he tells her a larger number than he actually had. Unthinkingly, she gives him the money -- even when the computers snap back on -- because she assumes the system was in error.

Things go from there. When Mark is driving with his best friend, who is absolutely plastered, he's able to prevent a policeman from arresting them by simply stating that his friend is not drunk. The cop immediately apologizes and goes on his way.

Things get hairy when Mark tells his dying mother that she won't go into nothingness, but to a wonderful place where everyone she loves is there, and they all have mansions, and everything's great -- in other words, heaven. It cheers Mom up before she croaks, but the doctors and nurses listening hear about it, too, and demand to know more.

Before long, hordes of people have descended on Mark's house and want to know more about this wonderful afterlife. Pressed, he writes a series of 10 rules on pizza boxes, which include the knowledge that an old man living in the clouds controls everything, and decides who goes to the happy place and who doesn't.

Now you see why this movie didn't get much of a promotional campaign -- because this dopey little comedy is actually a sly satire about religion. The hook, of course, is that religion could not exist in a world where truth reigns; the first prophet is also the first liar.

Mark remains unhappy, though, because Anna refuses to get romantically involved with him because he's physically unattractive. He's made himself rich and famous using his gift of lying, but in a world where everyone tells the truth, she only wants to mate with someone as beautiful as her. She doesn't want "little fat kids with snub noses," is how she bluntly puts it.

At this point, the movie also offers clever insight into the world of reproduction. Ironically, people who cannot lie end up making poor decisions about their mates because they're incapable of looking at anything but the obvious exterior.

"The Invention of Lying" is a funny movie, but its true charms lie beneath the surface.

3 stars

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