Deborah Ross

The unbelievable truth

The Invention of Lying
12A,
 Nationwide

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The Invention of Lying

12A, Nationwide

The Invention of Lying is Ricky Gervais’s first film as a Hollywood writer and director — well, co-writer and co-director, with newcomer Matthew Robinson — and it is a disappointment. Probably, it won’t be the biggest or most tragic disappointment of your life. If you’ve always dreamed of becoming a champion ice dancer, say, and you then go and lose a leg in an industrial accident, I imagine that will be a bigger and more tragic disappointment, but this is a disappointment all the same. I just wanted to put it into some kind of context.

This is what you would call, I suppose, a high-concept Hollywood comedy and, here, the concept is an alternative reality where lying does not exist, and everyone speaks the blunt truth, so there are no stories and no religion which, the film suggests, is the greatest fiction of all. (Listen, I’m not telling the Archbishop of Canterbury. You do it.) How can there be a world like this? Why? Look, just don’t beat yourself up about the logic, because there really isn’t any: no external logic, no internal logic — how come, if this is a world where everyone is bound by honesty, there’s a bent cop? — and no logic that was in a minute ago but now seems to have gone out, so can I take a message? Actually, the opening ten, maybe 15 minutes are promising. In this alternative reality, even advertisers can’t lie, so when a bus goes past advertising: ‘Pepsi...for when you can’t get Coke,’ I did laugh. And waiters can’t lie, so when one confesses that he had a small sip from a drink, I did laugh. But you can’t keep laughing at the same joke over and over and over and over — well, you can, but you’re probably not normal and are quite annoying.

Anyway, our hero is Mark Bellison, a chubby, shlubby failed screenwriter of a loser, as not played by Daniel Day-Lewis because Ricky Gervais’s agent must have got in first, so he’s played by Ricky Gervais. You may say, rightly, that as a performer Gervais always delivers the same performance, but that’s OK. It’s what he does and he does do it beautifully: those uncomfortable, unfinished sentences; that girlish squeak of a laugh; that look on his face when he’s battling off humiliation. Here, he is in love with the extremely beautiful Anna, as played by the extremely beautiful Jennifer Garner, but after the one date she tells him she doesn’t want to see him again and gives it to him straight: she doesn’t find him sexually attractive, he’s insufficiently successful and she doesn’t want his babies, because they will be fat and snub-nosed. I’d have punched her in the face but, for reasons that would be inexplicable if films like this didn’t feel the need to stick absolutely to a formula — Ricky, how could you? — Mark is more determined to win her than ever.

But all goes miserably until, one day, he does a remarkable thing and tells the world’s first lie, and from here on in everything changes. Success is his, money is his, and even religion is his after he consoles his dying mother — the healthiest dying mother I’ve ever seen, she practically has rosy cheeks! — with tales of an afterlife which, once overheard, spreads like the gospel and leads to zealous followers camping on his lawn. What is this film? Religious satire? Social satire? A rom-com? A screwball comedy? It can never decide, and lurches from one to the other in a deeply unsatisfactory way. It may even be a sort of Liar Liar, but with overstated philosophical pretensions, which isn’t something I’ve ever yearned to see in my lifetime, but you may be different, of course. And one last thing: although Anna learns to look beyond Mark’s looks, how come he never sees her for the spiteful, empty-headed, dumb narcissist she is? Weird.

Still, the performances are fine, and Gervais does get good support not just from Garner, but also Rob Lowe, Tina Fey and Ed Norton as that bent cop (nope, still can’t work it out). But it’s just not one thing or the other: not funny or surreal enough to distract you from its shortcomings and not subversive enough, if at all, to actually have something to say. Your average teenage boy will probably like it, which is good, just as anything that keeps teenage boys away from loitering in the street with those scary hoods up is good, but it is disappointing. Still, you’ll get over it, just as I will. It’s not as if you’ve always wanted to be a one-legged champion ice dancer but then lost your other leg in a second industrial accident. Let’s keep some perspective here.