Warner Bros. // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // January 19th, 2010
"Your baby is so ugly. It's like a little rat."
We all lie, even if we lie and say we don't. Sometimes, it's for selfish reasons, like skipping work or trying to pick somebody up at a bar. Sometimes, it's to spare somebody's feelings and, occasionaly, it's just fun to make stuff up. Without lying, we'd all be miserable, self-loathing bums who dwell on our problems all the time (though some do that anyway). In the hands of Ricky Gervais (Night at the Museum), however, it's pretty funny to watch these bums sulk.
Imagine a world in which nobody lies, not because they're nice, but because the lie has never been conceived of. As a chubby, second-rate writer, Brian (Gervais) takes an awful lot of criticism. His boss, women he's attracted to, just about everybody thinks he's a loser. After being fired from his job and receiving word about his pending eviction, he goes to the bank to close his account. There, he has the greatest idea of his life. What if he told her he had $800 in his account instead of the $300 that's actually there? He does, it works, and the lie is born. Brian takes full advantage of this, but soon finds out that, sometimes, people really do need to hear the truth and that no amount of money or lies will make somebody happy.
The Invention of Lying is an all-around strong romantic comedy, but is more effective as it lays out its premise than as it finishes. Gervais describes his idea in a brief opening narration and, though I'm not a fan of the device, it makes what he's doing clear from the outset. Without it (or the prologue included in the special features, which I'll get to later), it's hard to say how it would have worked with audiences. I'm not calling viewers stupid, but this is high-concept stuff that takes a certain amount of suspension of disbelief as well as an acceptance of some very awkward dialog.
All this awkwardness is surely intentional, and has become a hallmark of Gervais's humor, but the opening lines of dialog feel like the worst kind of exposition spoken by people who listen to way too much Dr. Phil. Every line sounds like a coached "I feel this way because you did this thing." It's a kind of honesty that may help out a struggling relationship, but it's startling to hear it in a film. Strange as it sounds, though, it does make for some funny situations. When Brian first meets Anna (Jennifer Garner, Daredevil) at her apartment, he arrives too early as she was in the middle of something. She deadpans, "I was just masturbating," to which he deadpans, "Oh, that makes me think of your vagina." They don't react to such statements at all; why would they? To our ears, however, almost everything people say to each other could be labeled as inappropriate. On their date, at work, everywhere, Brian endures ridicule for things he knows well to be true: his weight, his skill as a writer, etc. Watching Gervais cringe and take it is often a joy.
The dialog is sharp and the film is filled with great performances from a host of comic actors, including Tina Fey (30 Rock), Jeffery Tambor (Arrested Development), and Louis C.K. (Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins), who is pitch-perfect as Brian's drunk best friend. Gervais plays the lead with a brilliant discomfort, as we've come to expect from his work, and he does very well in directing his first feature film (along with co-writer/director Matthew Robinson). It's nothing flashy, but he is definitely competent in the chair.
What I like best about The Invention of Lying, however, is the truthy world that Gervais has created. Advertisements for Coke ("We're famous") and Pepsi ("When they're out of Coke") appear all over the place, with too much to take in on one viewing. The signage for the nursing home Brian's mother lives in nearly brought me to tears with its utter cynicism. Best of all is the way movies are handled in the film. No lying means no storytelling and, therefore, no fiction. Movies are as popular as ever, though they don't seem as thrilling as what we're used to. Brian's job at the biggest production company is to factually write what happened during the 1300s so that a reader (Christopher Guest, Best in Show) onscreen can relay the information off a teleprompter while sitting in a chair (imagine if TCM, instead of films, just had Robert Osborne speaking for two hour stretches...the horror). Not only are these things hilarious, they add a significant amount of complexity to the world, making it more consistent, more immersive, and much better than if he tried to skimp on the subtlety.
The Blu-ray disc of The Invention of Lying from Warner Bros. is very good across the board, and this is definitely the version to choose if you have the option. The 1080p Hi-Def transfer is brilliant in every way. The colors are bright and accurate, whites are very clean, and black levels are deep. Detail abounds in the transfer. The Dolby TrueHD surround mix is equally good, though not as important for this film as the image. The mix is front loaded, as expected from a dialog-heavy comedy, and not as dynamic with spatial effects as it could be, but it's very crisp and clear, and all dialog is easily understood.
While I would have enjoyed a commentary from Gervais on the film (he's a terrific interview), the host of extras included is satisfying, and often as funny as the film itself. We begin with a short so-called prequel, called "The Dawn of Lying," featuring the cast as cavemen on a really cheap looking set, that tells of the invention of the lie in our actual (fictional) world. I don't know for certain if this was originally intended as the opening of the film, but it should have been. Having seen this, the narration included at the beginning is underwhelming at best. Moving on, we have a pair of featurettes, which are both quite funny. The first, "A Truly 'Honest' Making-Of Featurette," features the cast and crew talking about how amazing Gervais is, at least while he's in their presence. The second, "Meet Karl Pilkington," documents the co-host of The Ricky Gervais Show, and Gervais's best friend, as he travels to America to appear in his first Hollywood movie. Brought in to play a minute role, it basically demonstrates how much Gervais likes to torment the guy. The biggest chafe, his role was in the caveman opening, which didn't even make the final cut. Ten minutes of video podcasts from Gervais and Robinson have little to do with the film, but are quite amusing. We close with a few deleted scenes (the alternate movies are hilarious, especially the one on the history of the fork) and an outtake/blooper reel. Nowhere on the disc is there a second of reliable factual information about the film, but the extras are uniformly funny.
The Invention of Lying begins much better than it ends. Given the high-concept premise and strong writing, it's unfortunate the film winds up becoming such standard, predictable romcom fare. It's by no means a deal-breaker; the positives far outweigh this negative, but don't expect to be wowed by the final sequences.
Ricky Gervais's humor is bone-dry, so there aren't a ton of belly-busting laughs in the film. It's very funny throughout, features great writing, performances, and an ingenious premise. The Blu-ray disc looks fantastic, and The Invention of Lying is highly recommended.
Not guilty...yeah, that's the ticket.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film