Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lovable liar?

Ricky Gervais coats the ultimate truth in a sweet facade

Posted on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

****
The Invention of Lying
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor
Director: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
WorkNameSort: Invention of Lying, The
Our Rating: 4.00

There is nothing that doesn't lie on the surface of The Invention of Lying like a cold body on a marble slab, naked and exposed for audiences to have their way with. The film, written and directed by Ricky Gervais and virtual unknown Matthew Robinson, coats itself in the thick honey of a sweet, traditional romantic comedy, but other than the presence of dimpled, adorable Jennifer Garner as the love interest and slick Rob Lowe reprising his villainous characters from Wayne's World and Tommy Boy, The Invention of Lying is about as far from today's standard fare as it gets. It is sweet ' the love story is hard-earned and authentic ' but most of all, it is traditional.

Gervais' simultaneously holier-than-thou and put-upon schlub act is front and center in his Mark Bellison, a failed screenwriter living in an alternate universe where nobody is capable of, or has ever conceived of, lying. Too often, their inability to lie is enhanced by their apparent inability to keep things to themselves or even show basic kindness. Gervais brilliantly follows the Jack Lemmon/Albert Brooks path between clever and sincere as he tries to woo his longtime unrequited love, Anna. Because they live in a world of pure logic and reason, Anna cannot fathom settling down with Mark for fear of producing 'little fat kids with snub noses.â?� Time and time again, Gervais' character is verbally abused until it feels like a town-wide game that everyone knows about except him.

In this sense, Lying continues the tradition of Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards and Howard Hawks of dark, cynical undertones within romances, comedies or any combination thereof. His Girl Friday becomes bland when you take out the hideous criminal acts that Cary Grant commits in service of love. Imagine if Audrey Hepburn never attempted suicide in Sabrina. This film takes the time-honored rom-com trope of mixing the sweet with the sour and runs with it.

Which brings me to the plot. 'The only man in the world who can tell a lieâ?� is the concept, but the actual story is more complicated than that, something much more fearless. You see, Gervais' character, upon discovering that he can lie, uses his power to bring hope to his dying mother. In doing so, he imagines ' fabricates ' the idea of God and heaven.

That setup alone could set theaters in Kansas aflame: the idea that in a purely logical world, God is unnecessary ' incredible, even. Word gets out of Mark's comforting story of 'the Man in the Sky,â?� and the world quickly arrives at his doorstep asking for more. So he creates his own religion. Actually, he creates religion. The questions this brings up, which are asked by the characters, plays like an atheist manifesto: Does that mean God gives babies AIDS? Does he have a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule? What constitutes a bad thing? Of course, any smartass in Sunday school has asked the same things (well, maybe just me), but the fact that The Invention of Lying uses as its sympathetic lead character the only man in the world who knows it's all a big lie ' and lets us in on that as well ' makes it kind of brave, and utterly jaw-dropping.

I stuck around at the theater for a long time after the film to listen in on people's conversations. This crowd skewed middle-aged and suburban, and I wondered if anyone would be outraged. I was fascinated to find that not one person mentioned the 'God is a lieâ?� plot, focusing instead on the love story and Gervais' hilarious abuse. Several people admitted to tearing up a few times during the film. If Lying succeeds at nothing else (and it's far from a perfect movie, especially the clanging 'World of Truthâ?� of the first act), it's proven once again that audiences will forgive anything if the human aspect feels true. The Invention of Lying, I'm happy to report, is true. And it is a romantic comedy in the best sense of the term.

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