Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"The Invention of Lying"

Imagine living in a world with no concept of fiction; no one has ever thought to tell a lie, there's not even a word for it. Of course when you have no concept of fiction you also have no fictional books, no acting, no art, no sarcasm, and even no religion (I'm sure some people will froth at the mouth over this). You have a world where everybody is as good as their word, and if someone says it, it must be true. Now imagine that you learn how to lie, and you have the basic premise of “The Invention of Lying”.

Mark (Ricky Gervais: “Ghost Town”, “The Office”) lives in this fiction-free version of the modern world, and is the standard Gervais character; he's a sad little pudgy loser, and no one likes him. There are a couple of things that set Mark apart from previous rolls though. First of all, everyone lets Mark know what they think of him to his face with no problems because even lies of omission do not exist in this world. It's like a world full of young children who still say what they think, and believe anything they are told, no matter how outrageous.

Like all Ricky Gervais characters, Mark is getting older, is a failure at his job, and is alone, but the other thing that sets Mark apart from Bertram Pincus or David Brent is that he's not the worst person in the film; he's not even a bad person. Mark really is the good guy, and with the exception of his friend, Greg (Louis C.K.: “Lucky Louie”) and his neighbor, Frank (Jonah Hill: “Superbad”) it is pretty much everyone else in this movie that are the horrible people. For once Gervais plays the victim that his former rolls perceived themselves to be.

“The Invention of Lying” is a romantic-comedy, so naturally there must be a love interest; her name is Anna (Jennifer Garner: “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, “Alias”). Anna is a successful executive (at what the film never says), and she's certainly friendly enough, but she is so shallow that even when she sees Mark for the great guy he is, she doesn't care. Anna is basically a self-absorbed teenaged girl for most of the movie, and that goes a long way to making her very unlikable. I found myself rooting for Mark to simply give up on her.

I will admit that I went into this movie disliking the concept; it seems like an idea for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch grown to horrific proportions, and parts of the film do feel like they were sketch ideas. Some scenes, like scene in the trailer where Mark tells a random blond woman that the world will end if they do not have sex, are almost standalone gags that demonstrate the relative innocence of the people in this world, but do little to add to the overall story.

That said though, I really wanted to like this movie. The cast is fantastic, with appearances by Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Jeffery Tambor, Christopher Guest, Stephen Merchant, Jason Bateman, John Hodgeman, and more. It's like the movie is one giant in-joke to have attracted all of these actors, many of which only appear in one or two scenes, and all of whom are fantastic. In the hands of less talented performers this movie could have been truly dreadful.

It is almost impossible to not want to like this film, but I just didn't. It felt like a movie that had been made on a dare, or perhaps it was someone's idea of a joke that was taken as a serious idea and then got out of hand. The premise is just too flimsy to carry the film for a full hour and a half. T is just too hard for me the believe that the world could advance to this point without anyone lying, or even not voicing their opinions about everything.

One thing that really does make make this movie stand out to me is that it does provide a chance for Gervais to step outside of his normal awkwardness and have a little genuine emotion. I cannot recall ever seeing one of his characters show anything more than disappointment or annoyance before, but he pulls it off convincingly. I'm not saying that Ricky Gervais should start doing heavy dramatic roles, but it is nice to see that he does have some range.

Compared to Gervais' last Rom-Com outing, “Ghost Town”, this movie falls a little flat as it wanders around exploring the effects that the world's first liar has on the people around him, the film industry, and the concept of an afterlife. The romantic aspect of the film is seemingly forgotten for long stretches of time between sketches, and it isn't until around the last fifteen minutes that we get to the standard boy-has-to-get-girl-back portion of the story. Perhaps if the story had kept its focus a little bit better, it wouldn't feel so much like it was missing something at the end.

“The Invention of Lying” is fresh, quirky, funny, and entertaining, but it left me feeling a sense of dissatisfaction as I walked out of the theater. I could never get past the flaws inherent in the premise, but the parties involved deserve a lot of credit for making it work as well as it does. If you're not the sort of person who thinks critically about films, then you will probably like it. If you like Ricky Gervais, you will probably enjoy it. If you don't fit in one of those two categories, then you will probably want to wait for the film to hit DVD.

Maybe sometimes honesty is not the best policy, but if you want to find out for sure, you can when “The Invention of Lying” fibs its way into theaters on October 2nd.

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