Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

This movie would have fared better as a social commentary on the way that lies and puffery dominate our lives, than it does as a romance. Invention shares some of the same flaws as Gervais' Ghost Town, from the year before, venturing into sentimental territory that is ill-fitted to the moments of sharp wit that mark the film at its best. To the extent that I excused Gervais for responsibility for Ghost Town's failings, because he didn't write it, this time around, there's no out. Gervais co-wrote and co-directed Lying and now I have to accept that it was probably his vision that led Ghost Town down the romantic treacle path as well.

Logic would suggest that it's mankind's ability to lie that makes us phony and shallow. But in the world where this movie is set, the complete lack of lies (big and small, black or white, kind or cruel) makes it an even more superficial place than the one we really live in. The characters cannot deceive, flatter or embellish at all. They don't even have words for the unknown concept of lying, nor do they have a word for "truth," since everything is true. When they invariably say exactly what is on their minds, it is usually demeaning to those around them.

Gervais' Mark Bellison is a writer for Lecture Films, where movie scripts are simply dry recitations of historical fact. It's when he loses his thankless job and is faced with eviction from his apartment that desperation prompts him to lie to a bank teller, to secure the money needed to pay his rent. When the lie works, he makes a career of it and that's when the movie takes a wrong turn.

The first 30 minutes humorously explore how ingrained lies are in every aspect of our social interaction, from Coke commercials to dating. Eliminate them and you're left with a shocking candor that's actually as refreshing as it is alarming. People readily admit their crimes, sloth and disdain. The honesty is wearisome for Mark, but at least he knows where he stands at work, in love and in life. He's universally hailed as a loser, so often that he's more resigned to the namecalling than hurt. This changes the more attached he becomes to the attractive Anna McDoogle (Jennifer Garner) a cheerful beauty who likes Mark, but declares him out of her league. She is looking for a genetic match, so that she can bare attractive children, not little fat ones with snub noses -- the only kind Mark could father.

While the movie's premise is often amusing, it's not clear why truthfulness trumps subjectivity. Just because everyone is consigned to tell the truth at all times, doesn't mean that everyone must see the same truth. Bias creates its own truth. Love begets a type of dishonesty that has nothing to do with actual lying. A doting mother won't see an unattractive loser in her own child, even if the rest of the world does. The movie envisions a world of lies and truth, but overlooks the line that perception can draw between them. Both veracity and mendacity are in the eyes of the beholder.

Once Mark discovers that he is the only person in the world who can lie, he first uses this power to improve his own lot, but then employs it helping others, making them feel less afraid, unsure and rejected. Here, the movie takes an almost spiritual turn that is not only boring, but unnatural, striving for a sincerity that has no place in the artificial world posited. Mark assumes the role of guardian angel, when he's more appealing as wry observer.

Halo firmly affixed, when Mark's mother lays fearful on her death bed, he assuages her anxiety by telling her of a world beyond death, where she'll be rich, happy and reunited with her loved ones forever. Given this knowledge, she dies at peace. The hospital attendants who heard Mark's descriptions of the afterlife demand to know more, as does everyone else.

With the masses dependent on his knowledge and guidance, Mark becomes a modern day Moses and, with no tablets handy, he scribbles his own ten commandments on Pizza Hut box tops. He tells the people about the "Man in the Sky" who controls everything, good and bad. Knowing that Gervais is an atheist, I appreciated his take on the origin of religion. Yes, to him it may all be a lie, but at least it was one started for charitable reasons, to offer hope, conscience and restraint to those who would stray governless without it.

After 30 minutes of meandering, I think the movie regains its focus as Mark goes from being haloed savior to hapless victim of his own falsehoods. He answers petty questions about the Pizza Hut commandments with glib rejoinders, allowing us to leave the sappy and return to the realm of dry comedy at which Gervais is most effective.

Civilization is briefly buoyed by Mark's revelation of life after death, but because their new faith results in no tangible changes to their day to day life, they soon return to the jaded norm, resenting Mark for telling them about the "Man in the Sky" who possesses all the control that they still lack. Some even decide to give up on life, since death and the eternal happiness it will bring them, now seems much more promising.

The film's last 15 minutes are concerned with Anna's slooooow realization that she'd be happier with Mark than with the handsome but callous Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), even if it means becoming the mother to fat kids with snub noses. The fact that it takes Anna so long to grasp this concept makes one wonder why Mark thinks her the sweetest woman he's ever met! Still, Garner gives an expressive performance that puts the heart beneath Anna's plastic surface. You do root for them as a couple.

Gervais' deadpan asides are as graceful and compelling here as they are in his podcasts. Speaking of which, it was delightful to see Stephen Merchant make a cameo appearance as a burglary target. Indeed, the cameos come fast and furious and are as fun to look for as the written gags involving advertising slogans, tombstone epitaphs, nursing home names and church placards. I wish Louis C. K. had been confined to a walk own role, rather than supporting, because he added very little as Mark's sodden best friend.

This movie was pleasant and Gervais is always a welcome sight, but in the end involved more lying than invention.

No comments: