Ricky Gervais's new comedy The Invention of Lying is a strange, unwieldy beast — a film simultaneously too overambitious and underambitious for its premise. As the trailers suggest, the movie is about an alternate earth where mankind hasn't developed the ability to lie; no matter how embarrassing, incriminating, vile, or unfortunate your private thoughts may be, if prompted, out they come. Fiction, exaggeration, literature, mythology, and (this one is important) religion don't exist, and men are tragically open about their desire to sleep with every attractive woman they see. When Ricky Gervais (he has a character name, but outside of David Brent from The Office, when has Ricky Gervias really ever played anyone except exasperated, dryly wisecracking Ricky Gervais?) is faced with the prospect of being evicted for lack of rent, he has a revelation and lies about his bank account, and our story begins.
The first act of the film is strong and fairly amusing as we watch Gervais use his new lying skills to make money, get ahead in his job, and do good deeds (feeding the homeless, talking people out of suicide, etc.). The little touches of the film's truth-saturated world are probably the best part, such as a Coke commercial ("It's basically just brown sugar water. It's very famous.") and an old people's home named with brutal honesty. But it's in this old people's home where things go awry, as Gervais gives peace to a dying woman by weaving a colorful, comforting tale of a land you go to after death (which is all taken at face value, this being the land of truth). Suddenly, everyone in the world rallies behind Gervais, who invents a man in the sky who judges you after death, a version of the Ten Commandments, and begins dressing like Jesus and being worshipped by the people in newly-invented churches. Using god and religion, Gervais exercises social control over the masses and tries to remake the world into his envisioned utopia.
Yes, this is the part the trailer didn't suggest: The Invention of Lying is a full-blown satire of religion, quite possibly the most openly and aggressively atheist mainstream release I've ever seen. And don't get me wrong, I'm as atheist as the next guy — have been my whole life and I have no qualms or uncertainty on the matter whatsoever — but one of the nice things about atheism is that it's an incredibly simple and constant philosophy that requires no validation, so I certainly won't laud the film on that account alone. On the contrary, I was kind of like "whoa, easy there!" I would have liked to see more of the social benefits and consequences of being able to lie in a world of truth rather than launching into a critique of all humanity. Okay, it was interesting, sure, but it wasn't particularly funny.
Then, as if Gervais realizes he's reaching a bit too far, the final act of the film suddenly collapses into something ludicrously underambitious, a super-generic romantic comedy that barely takes advantage of story's possibilities at all. You see, Ricky Gervais loves Jennifer Garner, but she's with Rob Lowe, who, hewing with no deviation from one of cinema's most tired, overworn clichés, is such a condescending, smug, slimy, unlikeable flaming asshole that even in the land of truth it defies any suspension of disbelief that any woman would ever desire him. Seriously, filmmakers? Can we just get rid of the "love triangle where our protagonist is a saint and the other guy is Hitler" trope forever? It's been done well a few times (hell, I'll admit it, I like 10 Things I Hate About You), but it's so cheap and easy. This trope was permanently demolished for me by Freaks & Geeks, when school nerd Sam Weir decided that by default the jock dating his crush Cindy Sanders had to be a jerk, only to have his worldview fucked sideways when he found out the guy was pleasant and humble and probably a better match for Cindy than he was. Since then, I no longer have any use for this cliché, and I cringe every time it rears its ugly head... as it does, full force, in The Invention of Lying.
So Ricky Gervais decides that he can't just lie to get Jennifer Garner to fall in love with him, because that would be cheating and would actually make use of the film's premise, so he tells her the absolute truth about how he feels to try to get chicks in the audience to coo "aww!" If you'll believe this, the film actually climaxes at a goddamned wedding. Does it get any more tired than that?
The Invention of Lying certainly has its strengths, the foremost of which is its basic premise, but it's a strange fusion of extremely broad, largely unprompted satire and a romantic comedy so stale it could be starring Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant or Matthew McConaughey. I'm not saying Ricky Gervais should get out of the feature film business, but if he tries again I'd like to see him get back to the awkward roots he showed absolute mastery of in The Office and Extras. He seems to struggle with anything else.
1 Star out of 5