by TOM NIXON
Struggling screenwriter Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) lives in a world where lies don’t exist. That’s not to say that people want to tell lies but are incapable (such as Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, an obvious reference point), mind, but that people are unable to conceive of the very concept of lying, or indeed tact. In this world, if you’re a little plump around the mid-section, everyone is gonna let you know about it. Fascinatingly, what’s left is a brave new world completely lacking in emotion except for vague dis/satisfaction, where art doesn’t exist outside of the audio documentaries known as ‘films’ read out by the screenwriter onscreen, and partners are chosen via perceived genetic compatability. It’s a world which could potentially throb with thorny implications and house some absolutely blazing satire, but that potential is never realized in what must be Gervais’ laziest project to date.
A role born for the Gervais persona, Bellison is this world’s Bernard Marx, a bemused onlooker frustrated and exhilarated that seemingly only he can perceive the absurdity going on around him. He goes on a date with long-time crush Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), a woman he later calls ‘the most caring person I know’ (interesting, perhaps unintentionally, in the way that only in this world could that claim ring even remotely true). She immediately flusters him, admitting with great sincerity that she isn’t looking forward to the date, does not find him attractive, and had been masturbating as he arrived and may need to finish up before they set out. It’s a good start, but like most jokes in the film it doesn’t really extract the potential of the premise; just about anyone told to write a film where everyone says what they’re thinking could come up with it.
Bellison’s life is falling apart around him as he ultimately gets rejected by Anna (she doesn’t want fat, snub-nosed kids), mocked by asshole co-worker Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) for his boring 14th century films, fired, and kicked out of his apartment for not paying the rent – inevitably, he is driven to doing something no man has ever done before: “saying what isn’t.” As he begins to comprehend the potential of this invention, he creates more and more elaborate lies, each of which is taken at face value by those around him (some quality actors, largely wasted) even in instances when he tries to demonstrate what he’s discovered. Wealth and fame awaits, and Anna becomes more interested, but, sorry, she still doesn’t want fat, snub-nosed kids.
This all culminates in a scene where Bellison’s mother is dying after a severe heart attack, and in response to her fear of eternal nothingness he tearfully invents a world after death full of comfort. Bellison ends up cast as a reluctant Moses/Jesus figure, proclaiming to the awestruck public a list of commandments by the ‘man in the sky’ written on the back of tablet-shaped pizza boxes, but it’s so contrived it feels condescending, not towards Christianity so much as every viewer with a brain. It may be tongue-in-cheek and affectionate, it may have some truth to it, but either way it isn’t clever enough nor subtle enough to feel like more than just a cheap shot. Maybe Gervais realizes this himself, as this strand of the film is barely developed at all, and we’re left with an all-too-formulaic happy ending complete with the bad guy left at the altar and a redemptive epiphany for the romantic interest.
Ricky Gervais has never been completely off-the-wall offensive, his brilliantly snarky, incisive observational humor being tempered by a healthy dose of ‘fat loser’ self-deprecation and endearingly unpretentious immaturity, but rarely has he played it so safe as in The Invention of Lying. His brand of humor kept previous gimmick rom-com Ghost Town from feeling like a lost Groundhog Day skit, and that one had some poignancy if you looked real close, but here he coasts on a current of cliches which jar uncomfortably with the ingenuity of The Office and Extras. Rather than Gervais bringing new life to an old formula, the rom-com walls close in around him, smothering his creative powers. The worrying thing is that he co-wrote and directed it, and yet it’s not nearly as smart as he is. Maybe it’s juvenile to call him a sell-out, but, well, I’m not sure he deserves any better.