Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

When I first heard about the movie I was very excited. I'm a big fan of Ricky Gervais' television shows "The Office" and "Extras" (and am really looking forward to his new show with Warwick Davis called "Life's Too Short"!). The premise sounded like it could be high-concept gold in his hands: in a world in which no one lies, and Gervais discovers how.

Then the movie was released to middling reviews, and my friend Frankie in particular said it devolved into an anti-religion diatribe half-way through, so I skipped it until video. And it turns out Frankie was right, though the concept requires further discussion.

The setting: an alternate earth exactly like our own, save for the fact that lies do not exist. This apparently also means that people are compelled to spit out the truth. Rather than simply refraining from saying certain things, in this world if you have a thought or opinion, you say it, no matter how hurtful. People are apparently unaware of the pain this causes, and of their own shame, because they don't hesitate or cringe when uttering these things. Gervais' character, Mark Bellison, seems like the only one who gets hurt by other people's comments, which is sort of odd, because if you're aware of your own pain, you're probably be aware of others' as well. But I suppose you can't get too nit-picky with movies like this; I just can't help it sometimes.

After Mark suffers a series of humiliations and losses, he discovers the idea of lying. And he uses this power for his own gain, at first. It's the same arc you see across any of these high-concept movies like Click or Groundhog Day. They use their power for evil at first, but eventually learn that what's really important can't be acquired using this power, so they try and stop it or use it for good.

Mark's mother is dying, and on her deathbed she tells him how terrified she is of death and the idea that there is nothing beyond death. Mark uses his power to invent Heaven, which comforts her, and also the hospital staff. Word of this new "fact" spreads, and soon everyone in the world wants to hear about this new information. So Mark creates God, and rules for getting into Heaven. And everyone is comforted by this lie, though it creates problems when the people demand clearer rules about how you get into Heaven, and what constitutes a bad deed.

And then all of this is abandoned in favor of the love story at the end.

Gervais is an atheist, and he has used his stand-up routine to make fun of Christianity in particular before. He's taking the same kind of shots here. The thing is, I don't know quite what to make of it. On the one hand, religion is obviously a lie designed to comfort people and get them to act well. But it's a lie! Lies are bad; we should only believe the truth. Yet these lies comforted many people, including his own mother in a genuinely tender scene. So what is he saying? "It's definitely a lie, and it'll cause problems, but it's OK for dumber people to believe them if it makes them happy or better people"? He creates a world without lies, that is also a world without religion. Clearly he believes in nothing supernatural whatsoever. And in terms of the film's story, the lies should be seen as bad, because even though he uses them to comfort his mother, he acknowledges at the end that it wouldn't be right to lie to the girl he loves. What? I don't get it. And the whole "creation of religion" thing is never concluded. He never comes out at the end and tells everyone, "I made it all up. It's false. But the principles are true, so don't do bad things." His message seems to be, "Lies are bad, though sometimes they're good, and also religion is a giant lie created to control people."

I think the movie fails both in structure and in worldview. By failing to address the big implications of creating religion, the story has a giant hole. Beyond that, it's also not as funny as it should have been. Gervais put loads of funny recognizable people into the movie, but none of them amount to anything more than cameos that make you go, "Hey, it's them!" Jennifer Garner does deliver a charming performance, however, and Ricky is still a very good comedic actor.

Another disappointment once the movie was over was the lack of a director's commentary for the disc. I was desperate to hear Gervais address his ideas in the movie, but the extra features were all concerned with abusing Karl Pilkington and "corpsing." Not a single bit to address the ideas in the film.

It is clear that Gervais is a master of uncomfortable comedy, which makes me glad that he's returning to television for his next project. I hope he knows the ways he failed in The Invention of Lying and takes them to heart for any future film projects.


Brian Miller said...

Nice review. I was interested in the execution of this movie based off the premise - but it sounds like it was squandered with the way they handled it. Too bad.

Makes me appreciate movies like Bruce Almighty. It has a real simple idea behind it but did a great job of carrying things through to their logical conclusion. Without that simple step, you get disingenuous films that fail at making even basic points other than "we suck at film making".

Ryan said...

Good point about Bruce Almighty. That's another "high-concept" movie that gives you both the fun of the premise and addresses the implications.