Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Invention of Lying (Warners, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Invention of Lying, an engaging farce from 2009 co-written by, co-directed by and starring Ricky Gervais, the British comedian who, though he created the hit show The Office (whose U.S. version stars Steve Carell), was relatively little known on this side of the Atlantic until he made this movie and signed on to host this year’s Golden Globes. The premise is not exactly fresh, but it’s engaging: the film takes place in an alternate version of our own world but one in which all humans are compelled to tell the truth at all times. Lying is so totally unknown that when Gervais’ character, Mark Bellison, finally discovers his inner prevaricator and spits out a lie that he has $800 in his bank account (he only has $300) and collects the money from a teller who can sooner believe the bank’s computers are malfunctioning than that a customer is actually telling her an untruth, everyone else in the movie is a sitting duck for whatever crazy story Mark chooses to feed them.

It’s basically a two-joke movie — one joke being the bizarreness of seeing a world otherwise like our own but without the little social graces and “white” lies to lubricate things (when Mark first takes the female lead, Jennifer Garner saddled with the ridiculous character name “Anna McDoogles,” on a date, she says that she’s not interested in him sexually and therefore there’s not likely to be a second date — and the waiter who serves them comes out point-blank and tells her, “I think you’re hot, can I get your phone number?”) and the other joke being the superb ease with which Mark, blessed or cursed with the ability to lie, takes advantage of everyone around him, in the process literally becoming a prophet when he makes up a religious fantasy to comfort his mother, who’s dying in a nursing home and wants the reassurance that death is not the end.

The whole religious subplot — in which Mark spins an elaborate fantasy of “the big guy in the sky who’s in charge of everything” and the nice afterlife you get to go to unless you do three bad things in life, in which case you go to the nasty afterlife instead — is clearly a spoof on the Judeo-Christian concepts of heaven and hell and offers a glimpse into a much more satirical and incisive a movie than the one that got made. One could imagine what Preston Sturges could have done with this concept — or, for that matter, what Lenny Bruce could have done with it (imagine Sarah Palin going on TV and saying, “We were going to tell you that the new health care bill has a provision for ‘death panels’ that will kill your grandmothers when they get too expensive to take care of, but that wouldn’t be true; we want to defeat the bill just because we don’t like it and we think that will help us at the polls with the next election” — and Barack Obama saying, “The health bills passed by Congress are really terrible, they don’t represent much of what I was hoping for at all, but I want the Congress to vote for them anyway because it’s going to kill us politically if we don’t get anything passed”) — compared to what Ricky Gervais did with it, which was basically make a quite entertaining little comedy about a worm-turning milquetoast whose invention of fiction in a society that had none makes him a success both with his employers — “Lecture Films,” a studio that makes long lecture movies about famous events in history (since there’s no such thing as lying in this world, there’s no such thing as fiction either and therefore no drama, no actors and no narrative film in the sense we know it) — and with Anna, whom he woos away from the stuck-up fellow screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe in a delightfully smarmy cameo) she was about to marry at the end when Mark shows up.

There are some nice bits in it — including a corrupt policeman (though one contributor pointed out that a society that did not have lying couldn’t have corruption either) offering to take a bribe to let off Mark and his friend Greg (Louis C.K.) from a drunk driving charge Greg is willing to admit to until Mark denies it for him; and a scene in a bar in which the bartender is made up to look like alternative AIDS researcher David Rasnick and who turns out to have been Philip Seymour Hoffman in another almost unrecognizable cameo — as well as some good signs posted during the movie (the nursing home where Mark’s mom is living — and dying — is heralded as “A Really Boring Place for Old People Nobody Wants,” and a Pepsi billboard reads, “For when you can’t get Coke”). The squad contributing to the “goofs” section on The Invention of Lying ironically — and unwittingly — showed off just how many instances of truth-shading there are in the movie even from characters who aren’t supposed to be able to lie — thereby underscoring how remote the fiction of this film is from our own reality. There are precedents for this movie — notably the 1950 film Tea for Two, in which Doris Day was obliged to answer every question “no” for 48 hours to win an inheritance she was going to invest in a show she was in — as well as odder, less specific ones like H. G. Wells’ The Man Who Could Work Miracles (another story about a milquetoast suddenly acquiring a mentally driven superpower) — but overall The Invention of Lying is a good concept and a charming movie, but so much more could have been done with it …