This is a movie I started watching with very modest expectations, given the gimmicky sounding premise (an alternative world where lying is unknown). The film surprised me with funny and original satire, and the promise of a possibly insightful look at the very concepts of truth and lies.
Mark (Ricky Gervais) is an average, perhaps a little below average guy who has reached his 40s without achieving much success in either career or relationships. He is a screenwriter on the verge of being fired. The entire notion of screenwriting, of course, has to be rethought in a world without lies! Lacking the ability to create fiction, they must churn out incredibly boring documentaries.
Soon after being fired, and called a loser by more than one always-honest co-worker, Mark is also informed by a girl he has a crush on (Jennifer Garner) that he is too fat and ugly to be a match for her. Mark’s life looks grim, but then, just as he’s about to be evicted from his apartment, he makes a radical discovery -he is able to fabricate things. Since no one is familiar with lies, he is able to talk money out of a bank teller and a woman who is a perfect stranger into a hotel room (telling her that the world will end if they don’t have sex).
Some of the best and funniest early scenes are simple, tossed out lines, the kind you might find on The Simpsons. Since even advertisements must be truthful in this world, we get some hilariously honest descriptions of popular products like Coke and Pepsi. It’s surprising that these products were mentioned by name in a less than flattering way, in a kind of anti-product placement for a change. A nursing home has a sign outside that reads, “A Sad Place Where Old People Come to Die.” Truth, we are reminded, is not always pretty.
Unfortunately, The Invention of Lying is not able to maintain the same strong writing it starts with. The decline comes soon after the film becomes a satire about religion. Mark’s mother is dying, and, to comfort her, he tells her that death does not mean eternal emptiness but a mansion in the sky where all your loved ones are waiting. Next, the whole world wants to know about this afterlife. Mark, then, invents a Man In The Sky, and we learn how the concept of God was invented, at least from an atheist’s point of view.
No doubt many people would be offended by this poke at religion. For me, the problem is that it starts the film on a downward spiral after a strong beginning.
The religious issue is simply too broad, so instead of examining the truly interesting and original ideas that surround truth and lies in an everyday context, we get a rather banal (if still amusing at times) explanation for why people believe in God.
Then, towards the conclusion, even the pseudo-religious theme fades away and the film devolves into a standard Hollywood romantic comedy ending.
I might be less harsh about The Invention of Lying if it hadn’t sucked me in early with the promise of something bordering on the profound. Why do I say this? Well, the very notion of connecting lying with fiction, while not completely original, gets to the very core of things like art and ethics. For example, it leads to questions like, does lying actually serve a necessary purpose for relationships and society?
It’s the kind of thing seldom dealt with in movies, and the fact that The Invention of Lying started off by handling such a heavy theme in a light and satirical manner was truly impressive.
Once the Man In the Sky issue started, however, the sharp edge began to dull. The ending is pure cliche, with Mark interrupting a wedding ceremony. I wonder how often, outside of movies, anyone has actually answered the question rhetorically asked at weddings, “If anyone has reason to object…”
So, The Invention of Lying is something of a mix, starting off as an original satire and turning into a typical genre flick. If you don’t expect a profound discourse on aesthetics, as I foolishly did, and aren’t overly sensitive about religion being ridiculed, you might enjoy it.
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