Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Invention of Lying (2009)

The Invention of Lying* * *

The Invention of Lying sidles into theaters this weekend, positioning itself awkwardly against the usual rapid-fire, video game-like fare blasting away on either side of the carpeted theater walls.

A bit of a British invasion this, given that the film stars British comic and writer Ricky Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson. Gervais is best known for having also starred in (and co-wrote and co-directed) the original version of the BBC television series “The Office,” the American version of which has since spun into a sitcom giant. In that series’ brief two-season run, Gervais played the role of David Brent, the often-clueless office boss (Steve Carell’s “Michael” in the U.S. version), who seems unable to experience empathy yet so desires others’ acceptance. As others have observed, the British “Office” is more than a little darker than the popular American one, with Gervais terrific as the hopelessly out-of-touch employer.

Gervais finds himself in a similar role in The Invention of Lying insofar as his character, Mark Bellison, also (eventually) occupies a position of authority over others, yet also much desires others’ appreciation and love. This is a decidedly American film, though -- shot in Massachusetts, emanating from the Universal/Warner Brothers empire -- and so with only a couple of exceptions here and there the tone is kept mostly light throughout.

The premise and plot do, however, bring to mind the rich tradition of British satire. We are presented with a world much like our own, save one significant and strange difference, namely, no one is capable of telling a lie. The opening scenes thus afford several grins as we see numerous instances of folks revealing embarrassing secrets about themselves or offering harsh judgments of one another. An advertisement for Coca-Cola essentially advances the thesis to keep buying the “brown sugar water” because, well, “it’s famous.” The lettered sign on a retirement home announces it is “A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die.” And so forth.

The Invention of LyingAs funny as it is for us, it is a difficult world for Mark Bellison, a self-admitted “loser” who finds himself receiving more than his share of criticisms and abuse. In fact, it’s a pretty grim and humorless place, recalling in an oblique way the land of the Houyhnhnms in the fourth part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As Gulliver discovers, the Houyhnhms are a race wholly governed by reason, and therefore also cannot lie -- or, as they put it, say “the thing which is not.”

There’s no word for lying in Bellison’s world, either, so there’s no way to describe what happens when he somehow stumbles into actually uttering an untruth about his balance while making a bank withdrawal. And, to his astonishment, his lie is received as if true. From there he quickly seizes the opportunity to reverse his “loser” status once and for all, continuing to say “that which isn’t” (as characters describe it, alluding to Swift, I’d say) as a means to fame and fortune.

Bellison’s power and status increase rapidly, and the irreverence that results from his messiah-like standing reminds one more than a little of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Alas, despite his successes, he still can’t win the love of Anna (Jennifer Garner), who cannot get past his dumpy looks. He realizes he could get her by lying, but discovers he has the scruples and self-respect not to.

Like Gulliver’s and Life of Brian there is an episodic-like quality to the plot -- that is to say, I felt as though it could well have ended at numerous points along the way. However, we do ultimately conclude with a most American-like resolution to what finally amounts to a light-hearted comedy.

Gervais is great, and Garner also does a nice turn as beautiful but superficial Anna. The supporting cast is filled with other familiar faces from TV and film comedy (Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Guest, and an uncredited Philip Seymour Hoffman among them). And Rob Lowe, in what has by now become a kind of type-casting, I suppose, competently plays the villainous Brad Kessler, Bellison’s rival both in love and his career.

In the end, The Invention of Lying is a nifty idea that is pulled off well enough to keep the audience entertained -- and maybe distracted for a week or two from the shoot-em-ups happening elsewhere in the multiplex. And while the film does perhaps invite brief consideration to deeper issues -- like ethics, or empathy, or even matters of faith -- its worth as a satire is hardly Swiftian or Pythonesque.

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