Monday, October 5, 2009

Movie Review: The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying ***
Directed By:
Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson.
Written By: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson.
Starring: Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Jonah Hill (Frank), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Tina Fey (Shelley), Donna Sorbello (Anna's Mother), Martin Starr (Waiter #1), Jason Bateman (Doctor), Christopher Guest (Nathan Goldfrappe), Edward Norton (Cop).

Ricky Gervais is one of the funniest men in the world right now. His two TV shows, The Office and Extras, rank among the best shows of the decade. They mix humor with an awkwardness that is hard to watch sometimes. He specializes in characters that are not really sympathetic – the completely delusional boss in The Office, and the extra that becomes a self hating star – and somehow makes us like them. They aren’t good people, but we feel their pain anyway. His genius in television has never been fully utilized in movies however. And while The Invention of Lying, a film we also co-wrote and co-directed, comes closest to bringing his style to the screen, it still doesn’t quite reach the heights he is capable of. Still, I have to admit, it is funnier than just about than about 95% of most mainstream comedies.

In the film, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a lowly screenwriter in a world where no one can lie. What this means for movies then, is that they all consist of one man sitting in a chair and reading the history of a past event. If you cannot lie, you cannot act, because in pretending to be someone else, you would be lying. Bellison is assigned the lowly 1300s at his job, and cannot find a suitable subject other than The Black Plague, and that would never make a good movie. His secretary (Tina Fey) loathes her job, and tells him this on a regular basis. His boss Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor) has told him that he is working up the nerve to fire him, so to expect that to happen any day now. His chief rival Brad (Rob Lowe) tells him that he hates him, but is also slightly intimidate by him, because he doesn’t quite understand him. His neighbor (Jonah Hill) tells him every morning how he failed to commit suicide the night before. And the woman he has had a crush on for years, Anna (Jennifer Garner) went on a date with him, told him that he enjoyed herself, although they could never actually date, because she does not want her children to be fat with stubby noses. Such is Mark’s life.

But then something amazing happens. Mark says something that wasn’t. He doesn’t know how else to describe it. He goes into the bank and asks for $800 when in fact he knows he only has $300 in his account. The teller assumes that there has to be a mistake, because Mark has to tell the truth, so she gives him the money. Soon he discovers he can use this newfound power to get whatever he wants. Everyone just trusts everything he says, so he do whatever he wants. He and Anna become friends, although she still rejects his advances because he is not a suitable genetic match. That Brad though, he is good looking, and even if he is kind of ass, her kids would be good looking.

When Mark’s mother is dying, she tells him that she is scared of what will happen when she goes. This is a world without religion, without the hope of an afterlife. That is, until Mark tells her how she goes to a great big mansion when she dies. He is overheard, and soon, everyone wants to know all about this “Man in the Sky” that communicates directly to Mark, and only to Mark. Thus religion is born, of course, out of a lie. If no one could lie, then no one could talk about things they didn’t know were true, which means there is no concept of God or an afterlife. An interesting idea, eh?

The film is very funny throughout. Gervais is a gifted comedic performer, and like many great comedians, he has his comic persona that he plays to perfection. While Mark maybe more likable than his characters in The Office or Extras, he is not quite the hero we usually see in movies like this. And Gervais has surrounded himself with some of the best comedic actors in the world, many giving little more than hilarious cameos. The film is just plain funny.

It also has some flaws. At a certain point, Garner’s persistence about how she and Mark could never be together because of their “genetic differences” goes from being truthful, to being shallow. We never see in her the same loving, caring nature that Mark somehow sees. She is pretty, sure, but is there anything else there? Garner plays the role as written quite effectively, but there could have been something more there. Also, while I appreciated the direction the movie went in when it introduced the concept of religion, it deserves a little more depth in its exploration.

But those are minor flaws that do not derail the enjoyment of the movie. The most telling moment in the film, in regards to Gervais’ career ambition, could be right at the beginning before a single line of dialogue is spoken, or even an image appears on screen. The movie opens with beginning credits that use the exact font style that Woody Allen always uses. Do not tell me that I am reading too much into this, because Allen’s insistence on these credits has become a running gag, and I do not think that I have ever seen the same style in anyone else’s film. If it’s true that Gervais would like to become the next Woody Allen, then on the basis of The Invention of Lying, he has a long way to go, and yet, I feel that he is on the right track.

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