Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gervais Learns How To Lie And It's Pretty Hilarious

The Invention of Lying takes place in an alternate reality in which lying--even the concept of a lie--does not exist. Everyone--from politicians to advertisers to the man and woman on the street--speaks the truth and nothing but the truth with no thought of the consequences. But when a down-on-his-luck loser named Mark (Gervais) suddenly develops the ability to lie, he finds that dishonesty has its rewards. In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, Mark easily lies his way to fame and fortune. But lies have a way of spreading, and Mark begins to realize that things are getting a little out of control when some of his tallest tales are being taken as, well, gospel. With the entire world now hanging on his every word, there is only one thing Mark has not been able to lie his way into: the heart of the woman he loves.

Whenever we hear a politician or a sales clerk promise something that simply can’t be done, it’s easy to wish we lived in a world without lies. As writer-directors Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson demonstrate in The Invention of Lying, such a world isn’t necessarily ideal. Set in an alternate universe much like our own where no one has or is even able to tell a fib, the new film begins like an odd vision of hell. It’s particularly infernal for a struggling screenwriter named Mark Bellison (Gervais). Because fiction is literally inconceivable in this environment, Mark can’t think of a way to make the 14th century and the Black Plague anything other than dreary. In this realm, movies consist solely of readers telling viewers the naked facts, so Mark is about to be fired because his assignment for Lecture Films is futile. Mark gets no sympathy because compassion is as scarce as deception. People bluntly admit their hostilities without any thought of another’s feelings. When Mark goes on a first date with the attractive and successful Anna (Jennifer Garner), she flatly tells him that his pudgy build and dead career prevent her from every considering him as a mate. Conversations like these are the norm in Mark’s universe. Her rejection and his dimming job prospects put him into a deep depression. When he discovers he doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay his rent, Mark simply tells the clerk he does and receives the cash. This is not a fluke. Mark gradually discovers that no matter how blatant the falsehood, any other person believes every word coming out of his mouth. When he tells his best friend Greg (Louis C.K.) outrageous fibs, his pal believes them even when they’re contradictory. The Invention of Lying is based on a simple idea, but Gervais and Robinson come up with seemingly endless ways to maximize it. All of the buildings are bluntly named for what occurs in them, and people say goodbye by wishing never to see each other again. The cast, which features great cameos by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey and Edward Norton, wisely play all the absurd situations with an appropriate lack of irony. It’s not funny if they appear in on the joke.

With The Invention of Lying, however, the actor demonstrates a range he hasn’t been asked to use before, so he easily adapts to playing a likable character for a change. It’s easy to go along with Mark’s ruses because he’s one of the few people in his world who feels empathy. While he initially enjoys getting bankers and casino owners to hand over unearned cash, he’s too soft hearted to use his gifts to hurt others. Imagine the agony he feels when some simple whoppers he tells his dying mother turn into a full-fledged religion. Gervais and Robinson use this little plot point to raise all sorts of fascinating questions: Is it better to follow a mendacious faith if it keeps people from misery or evil? Is imagination itself only falsehood or a truth that others can’t see? Is honesty a vice if it isn’t accompanied by concern for others? Gervais and Robinson manage to probe all of these ideas while coming up with 100 solid minutes of comic irrationality. The Invention of Lying easily exceeds its  quota for honest laughs. This gets a 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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