“Lying” Softens Harsh Realities

Ricky Gervais is a rarity in the entertainment world: here is a man who has earned his success. He wrote, directed, and starred in two critically-acclaimed television shows (“The Office” and “Extras”); he’s had numerous radio shows and podcasts (most of them with his writing partner, the very underrated Stephen Merchant); you might even recognize him from the countless cameos he’s had in other people’s funny projects.

Throughout it all, Gervais has remained charmingly cynical, even though he sometimes borders on the abrasive. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the award shows where he mocks the humility in the other actors’ speeches, or the segments in his radio show where he pokes fun at ancient cultural superstitions. In his latest project, “The Invention of Lying,” Gervais injects his seasoned skepticism into the usual light-hearted romantic comedy.

This unexpected turn might have kept the movie grounded, but more often than not, “The Invention of Lying” flounders in its cynicism instead of staying anchored.

Truthfully, this movie has a unique premise. Gervais creates an alternate universe that seems exactly like ours, except for one crucial detail: human beings have never developed the ability to lie.

The first several scenes lay out this gimmicky world beautifully. Everyone is completely honest, to a fault. No one hesitates to reveal their true feelings about each other, or to tell gross details about their daily routines; as a result, the world is full of anxious, depressed people.

Gervais plays the hapless hero, Mark Bellison, a schlubby screenwriter who figures out how to tell lies — and in doing so, radically changes his life.

So, this is “Liar, Liar” in reverse, right?

Not quite. “The Invention of Lying” is closer in tone to “Stranger Than Fiction,” another movie that weighed down its intriguing premise and harmless comedic fluff with attempts at existentialism. Just as “Stranger Than Fiction” got lost in its meanderings into philosophical musing, “The Invention of Lying” veers into amateur theology, colored, of course, by Gervais’s cynicism.

You see, when Mark Bellison invents lying, he also invents religion — or, as Gervais might put it, the lies that we need to tell ourselves to cover up the eternal nothingness after death.

This thesis rings a little trite, and a little true. The digs at religion are thrown into the cocktail of satire that the film provides; after all, don’t we need lies to live in a world where racism, homelessness, and general ennui run rampant? As Mark giddily steers through this world of too-honest (and subsequently, naïve) people, we realize just how much we rely on our natural abilities to lie to get us through the day.

Just when the film appears to have trudged too deep into its theological dilemma, it pulls back up into harmless fun with its romantic storyline. Despite the amount of power that Mark gains with his ability to lie (since no one else can figure out how to do it), he continues to inexplicably crush on the irritating female lead, Anna, played with irritating dopiness by Jennifer Garner.

A moment, if you please, to mourn the lack of strong female characters in comedies.

That was a good moment.

Besides Garner, this fantastic world is further peopled by a fantastic ensemble, with such notable comedic talents as Louis CK, Tina Fey, Jeffery Tambor, Jason Bateman, and John Hodgeman — just to name a few. All of them have brilliant moments on screen, but one can’t help but wonder if the film might have gone to higher places on fewer shoulders.

Gervais is a beautiful, talented man. And “The Invention of Lying” is certainly in a much higher league than say, “Ghost Town,” “Night at the Museum,” or that one terrible episode of “The Simpsons.” I’m glad he’s back in the business of creating clever things. One can only hope that his latest movie is a sign of better things to come.