Mark (played by Gervais) informs in voiceover at the story’s opening that “The Invention of Lying” is set in a world in which people have never lied, instead always speaking honestly to each other. Fired from his job as a writer of straight historical recaps for Lecture Films and desperately in need of money, he dreams of a life where he’s no longer a loser – one in which the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner) will date him because he’s successful. Down to his last few dollars, he heads to the bank and is suddenly struck by an odd notion: What if he informs the teller that he has more money in his account than he actually does? The gambit works, and soon he’s flush with both cash and the knowledge that not speaking the truth to others could greatly benefit him.
Soon, he’s won back his old job by crafting exciting (thought patently fabricated) historical scripts that his bosses assume must be true. In addition, his newfound confidence attracts Anna to him, even though she’s still convinced that they should not be romantic partners since she’s looking for a mate with better genes.
However, Mark’s life gets infinitely more complicated when he visits his dying mother in the hospital and tries to alleviate her fears of mortality by insisting that she’ll enter an afterworld of never-ending happiness. This moment of simple compassion sets off a chain reaction when others overhear him, assuming that since he said it there must be an afterlife. (Interestingly, in this parallel world of total honesty, there is no concept of God or Heaven.) Questioned about his knowledge of this supposed afterworld, Mark is suddenly treated like a prophet with a direct link to a higher power, which creates both wonderful perks and terrible repercussions.
Establishing the ground rules of their parallel reality, Gervais (best known for creating “Extras” and the original BBC series “The Office”) and Robinson make wonderful sport of satirizing the many ways in which we encounter lies both big and small in our daily lives. For instance, in the world of the movie a Coke commercial is simply a dry explanation to consumers that they should buy the product because it’s a famous brand. A nursing home is more bluntly called a sad place for old people. And dating proves to be a horrifying ordeal, with Anna matter-of-factly explaining to Mark all the reasons why she’s out of his league. The characters’ brutal candor provides a bracing, hilarious antidote to all of the casual deceptions we have to endure in real life.
But while the clever premise recalls some of Woody Allen’s high-concept metaphysical comedies like “Zelig” or “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “The Invention of Lying” lacks the comparable intellectual heft that would have elevated the material to the truly inspired. Granted, Gervais and Robinson are mostly after warm, sweet laughs, which they achieve in abundance, but considering the provocative terrain they visit when Mark becomes a Christ-like figure who develops a Ten Commandments-style morality system for the world, you recognize that the filmmakers could have gone deeper and edgier in their satirizing of the many lies we humans cling to in order to be happy.
Additionally, once Mark gains power over others by being able to lie, the story loses its momentum, focusing on his unsuccessful attempts to woo Anna away from a handsome, egotistical rival played by Rob Lowe. The film is peppered with funny lines throughout its running time, but after a truly terrific set-up, it’s disappointing to watch the movie lose its nerve and become just a standard Hollywood comedy.
Gervais has a grand time as a kind-hearted failure whose discovery of lying gives him the respect and wealth his sweet disposition never did. He’s particularly hilarious riffing with comedians Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. Disappointingly, Garner is mostly bland as his true love. Admittedly, Anna is supposed to be a shallow, gorgeous woman who learns the importance of inner beauty, but she simply doesn’t have much comedic spark. Perhaps even more debilitating, she and Gervais never generate much onscreen chemistry, which keeps the romantic subplot from taking flight.
Ricky Gervais (Mark)
Jennifer Garner (Anna)
Jonah Hill (Frank)
Louis C.K. (Greg)
Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony)
Fionnula Flanagan (Martha)
Rob Lowe (Brad)
Tina Fey (Shelley)
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Radar Pictures and Media Rights Capital a Lynda Obst Production
Producers: Lynda Obst, Oly Obst, Ricky Gervais, Dan Lin
Executive Producers: Ted Field, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Terry Douglas, Sue Baden-Powell
Director: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Screenplay: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Cinematography: Tim Suhrstedt
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Tim Atack
Production designer: Alexander Hammond
Running time: 99 Minutes