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Mark (Ricky Gervais) visits his ailing mum (Fionnula Flanagan) at A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.

Sam Urdank/© 2008 Truth Productions, LLC.

2 out of 4 stars


The Invention of Lying

  • Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
  • Starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner
  • Classification: PG

In his British television roles on The Office and Extras , Ricky Gervais plays characters who are funny, in part, because they are very bad liars. In the Invention of Lying , on the contrary, his character is the only good liar in a world where untruths haven't been invented. The result is an erratically funny but often frustrating comedy, with an interesting premise hobbled by internal inconsistencies and uneven writing.

As the opening credits roll, Gervais explains that The Invention of Lying is a straight-out fable - a what-if story about a world in which lying hadn't been invented. But almost immediately, we see that the script, co-written and directed by Gervais and Matthew Robinson, is less about lying than assertive honesty. Ordinary people going through their normal days blurt out unpleasant things to each other. Soft-drink advertisers admit their products are essentially sugar and water. Strangers tell mothers their babies are ugly. A seniors' home is called A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.

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When chubby, snub-nosed Mark Bellison (Gervais) goes on a blind date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), they both instantly recognize she's out of his league, but they go through the motions of a date anyway. This is consistent with the rest of Mark's life - people do their honest best to remind him of his lowly status. His secretary Shelley (Tina Fey) and colleague Brad (Rob Lowe) take every opportunity to tell him he's a fat loser who's about to get canned at work.

Mark is a screenwriter, but in this world screenwriting has a Canadian flavour: It consists only of doing voiceover documentaries on historical subjects. Perhaps as an indication of his future gifts, he's the very worst screenwriter at the studio where he works. Finally, fired from his job and about to be evicted from his home, he semi-accidentally tells the world's first lie.

Once Mark discovers the power of his invention, he tries it out in various scenarios - bragging, seduction, gaining wealth. But at this point the story begins grinding gears. The script can't really settle on exactly how much lying Mark can get away with.

In one scene, Mark tests his new talent with people at a bar (comedian Louis C.K. is Mark's alcoholic best friend and Philip Seymour Hoffman is the bartender). He announces he has a different name, ethnic identity and career. They accept each new statement calmly, with no concern about what he said moments before. It makes little sense, then, that he has to go to the trouble of distracting a croupier at a casino to win a pile at the roulette table. Why not just tell the casino it owes him money?

After a belaboured middle section, the film suddenly gains some daring momentum when Mark, inadvertently, finds himself a celebrity because of his apparent invention of religion, God and the afterlife. In the Capra-esque high point of the film, people around the world look to him for wisdom and consolation, and he's willing to temporarily play the part of a prophet.

What a disappointment it is, then, to see the film sputter for another half-hour while Anna decides whether she's better off with Mark or with his "genetically superior" rival, Brad. (Who, in an honest world, would sleep with someone because they were "genetically superior"?)

Throughout, Garner talks in the contraction-free manner of a Conehead from the old Saturday Night Live sketches. So do other members of the cameo-stuffed cast, including Edward Norton, Jason Bateman and Christopher Guest. Since we're being honest here, it must be said that their irony-challenged delivery makes them all sound kind of stupid.

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