Ricky Gervais, the face of the British version of "The Office," continues to poke and prod American movie theaters, looking for inroads on the lucrative market. His brand has yet to resonate with American audiences, but people should take heed: Gervais is one of the funniest actors working today, and the movies in which he stars are well worth seeing.
Like his last headlined film Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying is a funny, clever and well-written comedy that just didn't get noticed by anyone but critics. In Lying, Gervais, who also co-wrote and co-directed the film, stars as Mark Bellison, a loser of a screenwriter who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth all the time. In fact, lying is so foreign that when Mark "invents it," he immediately realizes he is the most powerful person on the planet. Suddenly able to get as much money as he wants (the poor bank teller doesn't question his claim to riches), any girl he wants ("The world is going to end if you don't have sex with me right now!") and, of course, write much better screenplays than the boring historical dribble that his rival Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) has been pumping out.
Gervais awkwardly bumbles his way through a pitch-perfect performance, delivering yet another painfully twitchy character one can't help but love. Gervais is a riot, but for those who haven't seen him in action, it's hard to describe his unique brand of humor. All that can be said is that he is a funny, funny guy, but knows when to lay back and let the story roll.
And that's where The Invention of Lying runs into a few problems, but also relishes. Lying has one of the most imaginative and cleverest ideas put to film, one that's so simple and ripe for comic situations that it's shocking no one thought of it sooner. So, as funny as Lying is, it never feels like it fully capitalizes on the concept. Lying could have been an absolute riot, but instead it's merely a consistent comedy with bursts of hilarity. While my desired outcome is never achieved, it's clear Gervais and co-direct/writer Matthew Robinson had loftier goals than just making a giggle-fest.
As much as Lying is a concept comedy, it is also a romantic comedy and a commentary on religion. Mark's relationship with Anna, a woman who, by all means, is completely out of his league (she looks and sounds a lot like Jennifer Garner), is central to the story. Despite the complete mismatch of Gervais and Garner, the two have surprisingly effective chemistry together and their interest in one another seems authentic. It also helps that Lowe, her other suitor, plays a complete douche bag.
But what Lying will become known for is its blatant and direct assault upon religion. After all, in a world where there is no lying, there can't be religion, because religion can't exist without lies. In one desperate moment, Mark accidentally makes up God, and from there the damage is done. The religious aspect to Lying isn't the funniest part about the movie, but it is the most stinging, and some great moments are created from it. Of course, if you're religious, you may be offended by Lying's insinuation that you're a big, stupid idiot.
The Invention of Lying isn't always as funny as I would have hoped, but its atheistic viewpoint - and the questions it raises - makes it well worth it. It's still an authentically funny and well-written film, and seeing Gervais in action is always a blast.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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