Ricky Gervais isn’t the first guy who comes to mind when you think of male leads in a romantic comedy, which is one of the charms of The Invention of Lying, a clever film in which he woos Jennifer Garner. The conceit of the film, which Gervais co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson, is a world in which nobody can tell a lie… until Mark Bellison (Gervais) somehow stumbles upon the ability.
The film is smart and funny but it tries to be too many things at once and winds up settling on the least interesting one.
It starts out as a caustically comic exploration of a world where people tell only the truth. Opening the door to meet her blind date, Garner’s character says “Hi, you’re early. You interrupted me masturbating.” “Now I’m thinking about your vagina,” Gervais replies. “I hope this date ends in sex.” “That won’t happen,” she responds, “I find you physically unattractive.” Talk about meeting cute!
At a restaurant, the waiter brings a plate and says “I took a bite of this” while the hostess tells an attractive woman “Welcome… I feel threatened by you.” This stuff is clever and uncomfortably funny, the sort of humor for which Gervais’ The Office is known, in both its British and U.S. versions.
About halfway through, the film takes a turn into even more interesting territory. Bellison has acquired the ability to lie (it’s not explained how) and as a result is able to do and say pretty much anything he wants, because everybody around him believes everything he says. He finds he can lift the spirits of depressed people by simply (and falsely) telling them that everything is going to be OK. But he causes an uproar when, at his mother’s death bed, he tells her that she shouldn’t fear death because there is another place, a magical land we all go to after we die where we’re always happy and we live in eternal bliss.
This news spreads like wildfire, and soon Bellison is worshiped as a messiah. He spins yarns about a Man in the Sky who keeps us in line and decides whether or not we go to the magical place. This middle section is the most compelling takedown of organized religion I’ve seen in a mainstream movie and I loved it for its audacity and cleverness.
But then the filmmakers blink, and the movie changes course yet again to wrap up as a typical rom-com about valuing inner beauty over outward appearances (the central conflict becomes whether Garner’s character can see past Bellison’s portliness and snub nose).
I recommend The Invention of Lying for its challenging middle section and the laughs that are pretty constant throughout, but I can’t help but look at it as a missed opportunity.