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The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Here's hoping that nobody gets lost in an attempt to work out the implications of The Invention of Lying, a drolly humane fable written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson. Is a world without lying even conceivable? Not really: deception is a fundamental attribute of natural life, and any attempt to distinguish mendacity as a special case, on the grounds that it is intentional, is doomed to founder on the murky boundaries of consciousness. There is also the psychological question whether anyone who "discovered" the utility of lying would understand why it is wrong.

The makes of this movie are not interested in philosophy, however. They set out simply to explore the the widely-held suspicion that, however wicked lying might sometimes be, a world without it would be unbearable. They also suggest, very gently, that love cannot thrive in an atmosphere of unalloyed truthfulness.

And they make a lot of very funny jokes. In a world without lying, for example, there can be no movies — not as we know them. Mark Bellison (Mr Gervais) is a screenwriter, so to speak, at Lecture Films, a studio whose productions are limited to reels of sonorous gents such as Nathan Goldfrappe (Christopher Guest) narrating the great events of history. You may wonder why anybody would want to watch such fustian rubbish, but you will not be surprised to learn that Mark has had a rough time of it trying to make the events of his assigned century, the 1300s, appeal to general audiences. The Black Plague just isn't very inspiring, and  Mark can't seem to turn out hits on the order of Napoleon 1811-1813, written by handsome but hateful Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe). So Mark is going to be fired — as everybody at Lecture Films knows, and unabashedly tells Mark even before it happens. Mark has a particularly amusing rondelay with his secretary, Shelley (Tina Fey), who doesn't see the point in taking messages for a boss who's not going to be returning phone calls. Even funnier: in this world of spades called spades, Mark's boss, Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor) can't conceal the overwhelming discomfort of having to fire an employee. You may come away from The Invention of Lying somewhat relieved that people who tell you that the unpleasant thing that they are doing to you is hurting them more than it is hurting you hardly ever behave accordingly.

With no job, no savings, no nada, Mark is about to become a homeless person. He goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300, in order to hire a truck with which to vacate his apartment. Told that the bank's computer system is down, he has a quietly intense Eureka! moment, and asks to withdraw $800. When the system comes back up, and the discrepancy is noted, the teller hands over the money anyway; the idea that Mark could be mistaken doesn't cross her mind — much less than he might have fabricated his bank balance.

The door thus swings open on a line of comic skits that depend for their charm on Mr Gervais's screen personality, which takes the boisterous, exasperated skepticism of actors such as Jackie Gleason and Nathan Lane only to muffle it in the silent sweetness of Charlie Chaplin. Mr Gervais is a master at getting the word in edgewise, but he doesn't like to raise his voice in the attempt. Stubby and snub-nosed (as he is epthetically described by the movie's love interest), Mark understands that the world is not going to gratify his appetites with any prodigality, but his hope is unflickering. That's why, once he has regained his job at Lecture Films (by concocting a fantastic "screenplay" involving a Martian spaceship that crashed down upon Earth in the 1300s — a hitherto unknown event that is recounted, as it were, in a document discovered by Mark in a sand dune on the outskirts of town), he renews his pursuit of the beautiful and successful Anna (Jennifer Garner).

On their first date (at a lackluster restaurant that is the best that Mark can afford), the waiter calls it: Anna is out of Mark's league. Anna agrees, and nothing can mitigate the fact that, stubby and snub-nosed, he will introduce inferior genetic material into any relationship that she might have with him. This deal-breaker is the hurdle over which Mark must help Anna to climb before the movie can arrive at its happy ending. And of course the only way that Mark can do this is by refusing to lie to Anna. She doesn't quite understand how lying works, but she understands that she is very special to him. In a world without lying, how can love be true?

Ms Garner is of course a plausible beauty, but her contribution to The Invention of Lying is a dopey coltishness that makes her seem a great deal younger than she is (she was 32 when she made 13 Going On 30) — exactly the eternal ingénue that this film needs. It's as though she were trying to make Margaret Dumont's stock character warm and inviting. Even as she comes to like Mark more and more as the story proceeds, she remains obstinately attached to the objective of finding a beautiful husband — and who could be more beautiful than Brad Kessler? The film does not force Anna to realize that she'd be miserable married to Brad; but she does register that his genetic material is not the same kind of offering that Mark's honesty is.

Whether the filmmakers were well-advised to tackle the very different kind of lying that Mark explores in order to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), only time will tell. The audience with which I saw the movie quite audibly had no trouble treating talk of the afterlife and "the man in the sky" as untruths, but reception is certain to be different in less liberal localities than my corner of Manhattan. When Mark delivers his version of the Ten Commandments, written on sheets of paper that have been scotch-taped to pizza boxes, the blasphemy of a three-strikes-and-you're-out threshold for entry to paradise is impossible to overlook, especially when it has to be settled that a "bad hairstyle" is not a strike. The film's heart may be in the right place, but its mind, from the standpoint of just about any orthodoxy, is not.

The Invention of Lying boasts a genuinely star-studded cast: Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton all sparkle briefly along with Ms Fey and Mr Guest. Louie C K and Jonah Hill do excellent jobs of fleshing out comic roles with moving parts. But the understated, almost throwaway nature of this fable is best characterized by its wan, often overcast setting in the lower Merrimack valley of Massachusetts. At once point, Mark and two of his friends are sitting by the fancy-schmancy pool that his "creative" screenplay has earned him. You want to reach for a sweater. (October 2009)

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