The Invention of Lying

A little over a week has passed since my last post. I had out-of-town visitors, who took up a great deal of my time, interfering with my inane attempt to chronicle the films I see. It was a welcome respite, since I don’t get to see my visitors often. During this time I did see a few movies and I have a great deal to catch up on. Tonight I’m going to start with the Ricky Gervais film The Invention of Lying.

Normally I’m a big fan of Gervais. The BBC version of The Office is one of the better comedies I’ve seen in my little life and HBO’s Extras (which appeared first on the BBC) is a close second. I remember the reviews of The Invention of Lying being subpar, especially a review I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air a while back. David Edelstein’s notes on Gervais’ comedy presented it as mediocre; a film that will probably be forgotten in a few short years. I have to agree with Edelstein – The Invention of Lying is truly a second-rate movie, destined to be heralded by diehard Gervais fans but overlooked by most everybody else.

The premise is pretty simple: In an alternate version of Earth, nobody is capable of lying. One day Mark (Gervais), a pudgy loser, figures out he can lie. He tells lies to make himself rich, famous, and a prophet. The only thing he can’t get is the girl of his dreams, Anna (Jennifer Garner). Since Mark is fat and has a pug nose (shades of Extras), he is genetically incompatible for procreation. Regardless of this physical incongruity, Mark and Anna become close friends, sharing their lives without the physical benefits of romantic involvement. The Invention of Lying is a romantic comedy in the traditional Hollywood fashion so I’m not ruining anything when I say everything works out in the end.

Gervais’ alternate Earth is interesting at first, but becomes obnoxious at times. Actually, the only interesting thing about the film is Gervais’ lies. The story is banal and predictable, the acting is mediocre, the popular music choices are trite, and the film contains too many montages. I counted six, but it’s possible I missed a few – there are so many. Yet the truths told by corporations that are notorious for deceit in the real world and Gervais’ lies are comical, being the only part of the film making me laugh out loud. Some of the funny truths told include Coke’s ad stating, “It’s very famous,” and Pepsi’s counter ad, “what you buy when they’re out of Coke.” That these gags are so humorous indicates Gervais’ ability to cleverly integrate products into his film, a trait that is only done well by a few writers (Tina Fey, Michael Weiner). Personally I hate product integration, feeling it detracts from the legitimacy of a film, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Ian Svenonius (lead singer for The Make-Up, Weird War, and contributor to multiple magazines and NPR) stated in an article for Vice magazine called The Documentary Crisis that the, “film developed out of topsy-turvy industrial capitalism,” and it shouldn’t be weird when a product is pushed on the consumer in a Hollywood film. Actually it should be the other way around: mainstream films devoid of products should seem out of place. Many products appear in The Invention of Lying, such as Gervais delivering a makeshift version of the Ten Commandments on two Pizza Hut boxes, a litany of Budweiser bottles and cans littered throughout his mansion, and probably many others I am overlooking. It’s enough to feel that I am watching a cheap, ninety minute advertisement written by a clever comedy writer and stand-up comedian.

The long line of famous actors featured in the film doesn’t even help its credibility. Actors like Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Edward Norton, and others appear throughout the movie and there are times they are genuinely funny, but overall the film falls flat, delivering only a handful of funny moments that (like the Pepsi and Coke advertisements) seems cheap upon retrospection. I watched the film on HBO On-Demand (how’s that for product integration) and kept checking the time to see how much of the movie was left; most times I was disappointed that I still had a while. I don’t know why I kept watching it – possibly because I wanted to see where it went, possibly because I like Gervais – but I kept with it, coming away disenchanted. One of the best parts about the third act of the film is Gervais in full Jesus mode, complete with long hair, beard, and white robe. The juxtaposition of the character, a liar in a world of honest, yet sometimes tactless people instead of an honest man in a world filled with liars, is interesting. There are a few moments in the film when social standards and beliefs such as religion, physical appearance, and materialism are touched upon in a clever way, but the film’s plot obscures the relevance of these investigations. I doubt the film would work in other hands, since Gervais is generally a competent writer, but these issues don’t receive the attention they need to make the film poignant instead of falling into a mold created for hackneyed films.

Box Office Mojo reports the film cost $18.5 million to produce and grossed about the same domestically. Overseas it brought in a little over $13 million, making the film profitable, yet only by a small margin. It’s probably enough to get Gervais another studio film, but I’m certain he’ll have to hock more products next time. I would recommend avoiding The Invention of Lying unless you’re a huge fan of Gervais or bored. Criticizing a talented writer like Gervais seems mean, especially since he’s done such great work in the past. Who am I to criticize somebody with so much success and genuinely great work under his belt? My answer, which makes me feel better about my hyper-critical self in addition to being somewhat true, is the audience his film is made for. It should be expected that very few people are capable of successes every time at bat, but Gervais’ track record until Ghost Town was solid and The Invention of Lying is another strikeout for one of the funniest British comedians in a long time.

Here is the trailer

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