© 2009 Ray Wong
What would a world be like without lies? That seems such a great, intriguing premise to examine one of the most interesting aspects of human nature. And Ricky Gervais made that into a limp comedy.
Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is in a dead-end job working as a screenwriter. The fact that he lives in a world where no one has ever lied before (the concept of "truth" doesn't even exist since, there's no alternative) makes his job (especially his obsession with the 13th century) very dull. Worse, he's about to lose that job, too, and he has no future prospect. He also has a crush on beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), who agrees who go on a date with him out of courtesy to their mutual friends. Anna finds Mark amiable, sweet and pleasant, but she'd never consider him as a romantic interest because of his looks. She wants someone who is a genetic match for her.
So, Mark doesn't get the girl. He does lose his job, his elderly mother is dying, and he's about to be evicted because he doesn't have the money to pay the rent. At his lowest point, he discovers he can not tell the truth, and he gets what he wants, because he is the only one on Earth who can lie. The revelation (and secret) makes him rich and famous. Even though his financial and social statuses have changed, he still can't change his genetic makeup to woo the girl. And then he discovers that lies have consequences (duh!) and he is affecting other people's lives. The weight of responsibilities and his own conscience become a burden on him.
Ricky Gervais (Ghost Town), the short, pudgy star of the original The Office and Extra has made a name for himself for playing short, pudgy everyone. His self-deprecating humor is pervasive: we're constantly reminded of how unattractive and genetically inferior he (and his character) is. It gets tiring (and honestly, Gervais isn't that unattractive). That whole routine simply makes everyone else look like superficial idiots. Also, Gervais's acting tends to be low-key and somewhat lethargic -- that's his style, but somehow I feel that the character could use a bit more energy.
Jennifer Garner (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) seems to be stuck playing the beautiful, uptight love interest, though. She has pretty much played the same role in her last few features, with the exception of Juno (her obsessed mother-wannabe character is one of the best things of the film). Here, her character just comes across as shallow and flaky and, at times, stupid. So it's difficult to completely root for her.
Jonah Hill (Funny People) is now forever typecast as the fat, unattractive loser. Where is his range? Louis C.K. (Role Models) is amusing as Mark's alcoholic, goofy best friend, but he doesn't really have much to do than being a doofus. Jeffrey Tambor (The Hangover) has a minor role as Mark's guilt-ridden boss -- his neurosis does very well for the character who is torn between doing the right thing and hurting others. Fionnula Flanagan (Yes Man) holds the true emotional core of the movie as Mark's dying mother. Rob Lowe (Brothers and Sisters) is dutiful as the handsome douche. There are many notable cameos including Tina Fey as Mark's secretary, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender, and Edward Norton as a zany cop.
Written and directed by Gervais (Ghost Town) and Matthew Robinson, the script is built on an intriguing premise. And for a while it's interesting, filled with funny bits of what-ifs. The interactions between people who can only say the truth (or nothing at all) are witty. I laughed out loud a few times during the first half-hour. But once Mark tells his first lie, the plot starts to dive. I understand that the concept of untruth does not exist for these people, but are they really that gullible? Also, I think Gervais and Robinson miss a lot of opportunities to do a satire on the social, political, and cultural aspects of humanity. Sure, they briefly touch on religions and lie-based culture such as entertainment (literature, movies, advertising, etc.) and it's hilarious. But they stop short of fully exploring those. Instead, they focus on Mark's failed attempt to woo Anna. The love story drags through the whole thing and become tiring. I mean, the whole world is Mark's oyster and he is depressed and obsessed over one woman?
Also, the characters often go back and forth across the moral line. Is it okay to cheat people out of their money? But then Mark gives it back to people in need. Is it okay to try to fool someone to have sex with you? But then Mark gives us a lecture on why it's wrong. The problem is, Gervais and Robinson don't go far enough with the character: they want him to be likable, but in the process they simply neutered him.
Their direction has a "fable" feel to it, similar to Stranger than Fiction, and that works in the context of the story, which is a fable, set in an alternate universe. Still, the pacing seems off. There are many dull moments. You just can't help but say, "Well, move on already." The plot meanders a lot. The jokes don't come fast enough and like I said, there are plenty of missed opportunities.
The Invention of Lying is marginally funny with an interesting premise. It's enjoyable. But I'd be lying if I say I think it's very good.
Stars: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Fionnula Flanagan, Rob Lowe
Directors: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Writers: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some sexual content and drug reference
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.7 out of 10