October 8, 2009

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The Invention of Lying (PG-13)
Ricky Gervais lives in a world without any artifice, where everybody tells the truth all the time, and then realizes the benefits of being the one guy to go the other way in The Invention of Lying, a surprising comedy that is funny in a bunch of little ways.

Gervais is excellent at the hangdog look and the under-the-breath line, and here that makes for a constant volley of not so much big stomach-cramping guffaws, but little chuckle-worthy moments that make the movie deeply enjoyable despite its low-volume approach.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) lives in an alternate reality that is very similar to our universe with one notable difference: nobody lies. No lies of any kind means commercials that are matter-of-fact (we’d like you to keep drinking Coke, a spokesperson says in a TV ad before taking a sip and commenting that it’s too sweet), greetings of “how are you doing” answered with discussion of depression or embarrassing ailments, and “movies” that are just narrators reading a screenplay (because acting is pretending, which is a form of artifice). It’s not that these people are told not to lie, it’s that saying anything but what is isn’t possible — they don’t have words for it. So when Mark arrives for his blind date with Anna (Jennifer Garner) and she tells him almost instantly that she doesn’t have high hopes for the date and isn’t interested in having sex with him, Mark finds it dispiriting but not particularly surprising. And when he’s fired from his job writing screenplays about the 1300s, he dully accepts the “I never liked you”s and “you’re a loser”s from his soon-to-be-former co-workers (Tina Fey, Rob Lowe). He’s on the verge of being kicked out of his apartment because of his unemployment and so he heads to the bank to take out the little he has left — about $300 — to spend on a moving truck. How much will that be, the bank teller asks him. Mark thinks for a moment and says $800 (the amount of his rent). When the teller looks at his account, she sees that it says he only has $300 — but it must be a mistake. If Mark says he has $800 he must have $800 because there is no other conclusion for the teller to reach.

Mark realizes the brilliance and the possibility of what he’s done and soon he’s telling people something different from what is (the only way he can explain what he’s doing) all over the place. He tells a suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) that things are going to be OK; he gets his job back by saying he has the best script ever (about that alien invasion in the 1300s — oh, you’ve never heard of it because aliens wiped the memories from all human brains at the end). But none of these statements about “things that aren’t” compare to what he tells his mother (Fionnula Flanagan). As she lies dying in a hospital, terrified of what will happen after she ceases to live, terrified of the idea of fading to nothingness, Mark tells her not to worry. She isn’t going into nothing. She’s going to the best place she can think of and will get a mansion. All her friends and loved ones will be there and she’ll be young again and eternally happy.

His mother isn’t the only one who hears the news about what happens after death. Soon, Mark is mobbed by people who have questions. How do you placate all these people with their questions about this eternal-happiness mansion-filled existence? Mark settles on crafting a story about the Man Who Lives in the Sky.

In big and little ways, The Invention of Lying doesn’t just get funnier as it goes along, it gets sharper. Without getting too preachy, it gets to the good and bad things that can come from the stories we tell ourselves that might not be what is. A bit of delusion is a good thing; hope, after all, can be a form of delusion. It all depends on how we use it. Gervais is the perfect person to dance through this kind of minefield. He is a remarkably skilled comedian, always able to go farther than you think he can. But he can also portray genuine emotion without it seeming fake or syrupy. He puts effort into the little things — little questions of prop or little moments — and it keeps the movie from falling apart the way stories with this kind of set-up so often can.

And Gervais is not alone. He has a solid supporting cast of people who add to even the briefest of scenes (the aforementioned Fey, Lowe and Hill but also Louis C.K., Jason Bateman, John Hodgman, Jeffrey Tambor and Ed Norton). And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write — Jennifer Garner was perfectly cast. She plays a bit of a dippy pretty girl who grows to like Mark but feels he may be a loser. It’s a weird riff on her 13 Going on 30 character with some maturity and self-awareness thrown in. Somebody up there with the Man Who Lives in the Sky must like her. B+

Rated PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference. Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, The Invention of Lying is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.