Warner Bros. // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // January 21st, 2010
In a world where everyone can only tell the truth...he's just invented the lie!
2008's Ghost Town was a genuinely excellent rom-com that should have brought British comedian Ricky Gervais to the masses with a ton of box-office receipts. However, in Hollywood simply being great doesn't make you an automatic financial success (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) and sadly Ghost Town sunk with precious little to show other than critical adoration. The Invention of Lying is Gervais's follow-up, and this time he's not only in the leading role but also writing and directing with newcomer Matthew Robinson, making this in every conceivable way his own baby. So it must have been hard to watch The Invention of Lying perform just as unremarkably at the box-office as Ghost Town and have to watch it endure a decidedly more mixed audience response. The concept at the heart of the film is ingenious: what would happen in a world where nobody can lie if one schlubby loser worked out how to bend the truth? In typical Gervais style, it's plugged for awkward and socially embarrassing laughs but The Invention of Lying also has extra layers of perceptiveness and intelligence, forming into a quirky but razor sharp religious satire before the end. A romantic plot feels tacked on and is the cause of a frustratingly saccharine ending, but overall the film is a winner -- after all, comedies that are funny, fresh, and smart are pretty rare these days.
Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais, BBC's The Office) is a struggling screenwriter who is strapped for cash and the bearer of a less than flattering physical appearance. In a world where nobody lies, these aren't great traits to have. After falling hopelessly in love with the gorgeous Anna (Jennifer Garner, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), she rejects him on the grounds of his inferior genes, and later the same week Mark is left jobless and evicted. Arriving at the bank to close his account, Mark inexplicably, in a moment of desperation, withdraws more than he has, but in a world where the truth is constant, nobody has any reason to suspect he's lying. Realizing the significance of what he's done, Mark sets about using his newfound power to get everything he wants in life, winning huge amounts in casinos and utilizing his ability to fib in writing screenplays that deploy fiction and aren't based on tedious historical events. However despite his wealth and fame, he still can't get Anna, who despite her growing feelings toward him thinks she requires a better genetic match to guarantee her future children's happiness.
Having created two of the best British sitcoms of the decade (The Office and Extras), it was only natural that Gervais should bring his eye for funny to the States in search of a film career. So far, from a financial stand-point, he's been unlucky, but The Invention of Lying is another credible effort that didn't get the love it deserved. The film isn't perfect and Robinson and Gervais's relative inexperience behind the camera lets them down on occasion, but overall this is a comedy that boasts good ideas and quality gags. It's probably fair to say that the film is essentially a one-joke effort, but damn, when the joke you've got is this amusing, it'll carry a production for a surprising amount of time. However, even if the idea of a one-gag comedy doesn't rock your boat, Gervais and Robinson should be commended for taking it in so many intriguing directions; the blunt criticisms and disturbingly open confessions are all present, yet the infusion of religion into the proceedings is inspired and provides a verve and poignancy that most filmmakers would happily overlook.
Gervais himself does a fine job in the lead role and is a little more sympathetic than usual (he's usually found depicting depressed jerks), forcing the audience to care about him even as he manipulates the truth shamelessly. In fairness, the screenplay shows that not everything he does is for his own personal gain, and this works some way toward making Mark seem like a likable guy, but overall Gervais's charming and reserved acting is what really keeps it ticking. The film has recruited a stellar cast, though in honesty most are playing to a very specific one-note type. Jennifer Garner is cute even if the honesty clause makes her seem arrogant on occasion, and she displays a sturdy comic chemistry alongside Gervais. Rob Lowe (The West Wing) is a smarmy and wonderfully funny addition as the cocky, rich, and suave antithesis of Gervais, whilst Tina Fey (Baby Mama) and Jonah Hill (Funny People) are consistently amusing in secondary roles. The Invention of Lying is also notable for the number of cameos from big name performers, including Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The screenplay is filled with hysterical one liners and acerbic barbs, but the greatest achievement might be its disquietingly full-throttle satire on religion. Gervais and Robinson have shrewdly implied that in a world without lies there is no religion, and they use a mix of broad and subtle comedy to build on this interesting idea. The scene in which Gervais writes down the equivalent of the 10 Commandments is played for guffaws because he's doing it on pizza boxes, but a sequence in which he has to explain said rules is filled with a probing style of humor that takes no prisoners. The Invention of Lying also has dramatic ambitions, but its fulfillment of these is a little less consistent. There is a beautiful moment in which Gervais creates the idea of heaven and eternal paradise to quell his dying mother's terror, but some of the romantic stuff with Garner is less successful. The two have a reasonable chemistry and their first date at the start is uproarious, but the love subplot never feels as inventive or satisfying as the rest of the project. It's a very formulaic addition to an otherwise refreshing comic gambit, and the finale looks lifted out of the dreariest rom-com possible. Still it's the only genuine narrative slip-up, and by that juncture the movie has already established itself as an entertaining use of your time.
Visually the movie is surprisingly flat and almost looks like it was shot for TV, but this is surely down to the inexperience either director has with feature films; indeed, any direction Gervais has done prior to this was for the medium of television. It's not a repulsive endeavor, just incredibly ordinary and maybe even a little less than the sum of its $18 million budget. Still, it's in the writing and acting arenas that movie puts up a gladiatorial effort and delivers worthwhile results. The humor isn't quite as vulgar as Gervais has been in the past (it's PG-13 after all), but the British comic still shoves in a few gags sourced from masturbation and various sexual acts. It's nothing too extreme but enough to gently remind you of his edgier sensibility. Then again, in a movie that is totally about its characters' inability to fib or repress any antisocial thoughts, it would be a cheat to circumvent the slightly grosser material.
The DVD looks and sounds fine, and unlike some of their recent titles (Shorts, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) Warner Bros. has really put in the effort on the bonus material front. Indeed, the standard-def version of The Invention of Lying packs nearly everything the Blu-Ray has to offer, so unless you're a Hi-Def nut and don't mind splashing out a few extra bucks, this might be a rare case of the ordinary DVD being a preferred option. The extras aren't particularly interested in offering filmmaking insight but rather in making you laugh and celebrating Gervais's comedic imagination. A sequence that I believe was designed as an alternate opening to the movie showcases the dawn of lying, and whilst it's a bit more ambitious than the narration that starts the theatrical cut, it might have felt a little imbalanced and tonally off in the actual product. It is, however, in its own way, modestly amusing.
The most egregious offering is a featurette where everyone sits around and talks about the brilliance of the film's British co-creator (I agree he's great but I don't want to watch recognizable faces babbling the same overzealous tosh), but a series of podcasts featuring the two directors is good for a hearty dose of giggles. The best feature is probably "Meet Karl Pilkington," which details Ricky Gervais's comedic partner Karl Pilkington's trip to shoot a segment of the film. I'm already privy to Pilkington's raw and blunt style of comic delivery, but that didn't stop this from being very watchable, and it really displays Gervais's twisted sense of humour too. Finally, some deleted and extended material is also included as are some outtakes.
Yeah, the romance doesn't fully work and it is aesthetically a bit bland. Still I've already discussed these and made it clear they don't prevent The Invention of Lying from representing a fun way to spend 99 minutes.
As a fan of Ricky Gervais, my expectations were high, and despite a few niggles, the movie doesn't disappoint. It's a solid comedy with a superlative central concept and ultimately I regret not having gone to see it in theatres and doing my bit to stop it from flopping. Let's hope that all the fools in the world like me enjoy it on DVD and turn it into a home video hit. Encouraging potential buyers on that front is the fact the DVD is a very good release and standard-def connoisseurs haven't been totally shafted for once.
Review content copyright © 2010 Daniel Kelly; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Alternate Opening
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Video Podcasts
* Official Site
* Wikipedia: Invention of Lying