Originally publish on In Review Online.
Ricky Gervais is long on personality and charm. He made “The Office” into the cult hit it has become and made last year’s Ghost Town at the very least enjoyable. A well-seasoned actor and writer, Gervais’ logical next step would be feature film director. Or maybe not. His debut feature, The Invention of Lying proves that he has great comedic and creative promise as a director, but also a disappointing willingness to surrender to predictability and Hollywood rom-com status quo.
The Invention of Lying is set in a hamlet where the population is unable to lie, or, because it is an unnamed skill, unable to say something that is not. It is hardly as benevolent as it seems: not only are people brutally honest, they are also unable to keep opinions or thoughts to themselves. Retirement homes are ‘sad places for helpless old people,’ movies are all fact based narrations where the narrator is the star, and if somebody thinks you are fat and ugly, you better believe you are going to hear about it. It’s no filter in overdrive. How better to demonstrate the intricacies of this age of honesty than a blind date between the plain and self-conscious Mark (Gervais) and the beautiful and trite Anna (Jennifer Garner.) Anna’s disappointment is about as veiled as an army tanker, as she bluntly informs Mark that he is fat, has a pudgy nose and that she will not have sex with him. And—because he was early—he interrupted her while she was masturbating. (Now there is something you don’t normally hear women talk about in movies.) Mark takes it in stride, and at the end of the night he is encouraged by Anna’s inebriated goodbye kiss. The entire date is hilarious, and viewers would be well advised to revel in it.
If Mark’s personal life is on shaky ground, his professional life is no better. His failure to write a blockbuster about the 17th century lands him on the street without a job and kicked out of his apartment. Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures. The flip side to the innate inability to lie is the inherent ability to believe everything. So when Mark shows up at the bank to close his account and his synapses have a moment of clarity and he lies about the amount he has, the teller believes him. Mark has become the ultimate con man: a liar in a sea of believers. With the talent to get just about anything he wants, he folds to the desire for altruism, world peace and universal happiness. Easier said than done, of course. Lying hasn’t changed his physique and Anna hasn’t changed her mind about her unwillingness to procreate with Mark.
Gervais has built one of the most incredible ensemble casts in recent memory with bit parts from Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Christopher Guest, Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But it still can’t save The Invention of Lying from slowly dying in a swamp of predictable schmaltz. The film approaches ‘honest-land’ apathetically and allegorically, but when it changes gears and expects us to have sympathy for the superficial characters and their pursuit of happiness, it is simply asking too much. Gervais charm and spontaneity quickly wears off when it becomes clear that he is on the romantic comedy assembly line.