Ricky Gervais is a brilliant comedian. You don't really need me to you that, you only need to watch the original version of "The Office" to see this. In addition to creating the memorable lead of this British television series, he and his longtime creative partner, Stephen Merchant, created the series, crafting an ensemble of memorable, very original and very funny characters. He was almost as good on the series "Extras". But he has had some difficulty transitioning to the role of movie star; he has appeared in a number of memorable supporting roles, but his two leading performances, so far, have been problematic, forgettable and pretty darn bad.
In "Ghost Town", he plays a dentist who has a near death experience and starts to see ghosts. One of these ghosts, played by Greg Kinnear, uses him to communicate with his wife, played by Tea Leoni, in an effort to prevent her from marrying a bad guy, played by Billy Campbell. The film is amusing and even funny at times, but the story is too high concept and Gervais is too low key to match the story. In the end, the result is little better than the dramedies populating the many television channels on your Direct TV satellite.
In his new film, "The Invention of Lying", Gervais again stars, this time as Mark Bellison, a struggling film writer, who lives in a typical small town on the East Coast of a very different America. In this America, no one lies, so conversations are uncomfortably awkward and movies are uncommonly dull. This time, Gervais has teamed with Matthew Robinson to co-write and co-direct. Robinson has no other credits listed on IMDB.com, so I am not sure where he came from.
Initially, the idea holds potential. As Bellison walks through town, we see some pretty honest advertisements. A billboard for Coca Cola announces that it is basically brown coloring, water and sugar. Another billboard for Pepsi announces, "When you can't find a Coke". These are amusing and instantly give us a picture of what this universe holds for us.
The film opens with Bellison headed to the apartment of Anna (Jennifer Garner). They are to go on a first date together. When she answers the door, she immediately voices her true feelings about Mark, the date, and his chances of having sex with her. They go to a little Italian place for dinner and the waiter immediately voices his feelings for Anna. He also states that he took a sip of the drink he is now serving her. And this continues.
Mark is having trouble at work. Bellison works for a movie company that basically films lecturers giving an oral history of a significant event or time period.
Each of the writers has been assigned a specific time period and Mark has difficulty making anything interesting out of the Black Plague and the other subjects he has to work with. Because of this, his films have not been successful and he learns he will probably be fired. When he arrives at work, his secretary (Tina Fey) happily passes on this information, along with her true feelings of him. As he sits in his office, he watches his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) walk by and stop for a second and then continue on before walking by again. Mark stops him and has to almost fire himself.
Mark's main rival, Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) is having a phenomenal run of success. People are flocking to the films he makes, anxious to watch the lecturer (Christopher Guest) sit in a chair and relate the details of a historical event. Mark doesn't like Brad and Brad takes every opportunity to rub his success in Mark's face.
The next day, the landlord shows up and wants the rent. But Mark doesn't have it. He goes to his bank and wants to withdraw the money he has, but makes a sarcastic comment about how he 'would really like $800'. The teller assumes there has been a mistake and gives him the $800 instead. Mark has just invented a very valuable skill.
There are a lot of problems with "The Invention of Lying". An interesting idea quickly becomes flat when it becomes the only idea. Yes, there are variations on the theme, but it is essentially a one-note film. The first few times people spout their true feelings about someone or something, it takes us by surprise, shocking out a laugh. But people don't talk as much as they do in "Lying"; they don't stop and psychoanalyze their feelings with every thought. Does not talking about your feelings make you a liar? That seems to be the idea behind a lot of this film because people immediately start telling others how they really feel as soon as they come together.
Something just occurred to me. There are more than a few moments when people say things like "I have always loathed working for you". Yet, through a lot of the film, people immediately tell their feelings and first impressions about someone when they first meet. If this is the practice in this world, why is someone just now saying "I have always loathed working for you"? It doesn't seem like the narrative can and should have it both ways.
Also, a lot of these 'truths" people voice are based on first impressions and that makes the characters seem shallow and mean. Certainly not likable or innocent. Because we don't really care about anyone in the film, we quickly lose interest.
Eventually, Mark learns of a way to get his job back and to become a very successful film writer. He starts to tell stories, to embellish the truth and creates something much more similar to the film we are watching. But when people ask where this information is coming from, because they aren't aware of the skill of lying, Mark states that he talks to The Man Upstairs. This leads to a number of the characters trying to get Mark to introduce them to The Man Upstairs and this leads to some obvious parodies aimed at organized religion. An idea that quickly becomes tiresome because they just aren't that original or interesting.
A lot of the problems in "Lying" come from Gervais portrayal of Bellison. He spends a lot of the film reacting to others and giving the appearance of being aggravated or annoyed with others. Are we to believe that Bellison is the only one in the world frustrated with this situation? Everyone else seems to accept it when people instantly tell their impressions to a person they have just met, or to update the status of their feelings during a date. But Mark seems to receive a fare share of highly critical remarks and observations, which are funny at first, but just seem to become more and more mean spirited as the story progresses. And he is frustrated about this. After Mark turns this situation to his advantage and starts to become a success, his persona seems to change and he seems to start regarding others with frustration. As in "How can you be so dumb…" Again, this is funny, briefly, in the beginning, but again, quickly becomes tiresome.
The other big problem with "Lying" is Jennifer Garner who plays Anna. She is just plain awful throughout the film. Immediately, her character states that she doesn't hold any hope for the date because Mark doesn't make enough money and the likelihood they will have sex on the first date is slim because Mark is fat and unattractive. Anna starts out as an extremely unlikable character. This isn't a bad thing, if there is some sort of metamorphosis throughout the story. But she doesn't change at all. Later, she becomes interested in Brad, because he is "good looking", successful, and wealthy. Everything she is. Everything she wants and should have. In other words, Mark is not up to her standards and Brad is.
Garner seems to think that Anna should be portrayed as Marilyn Monroe might portray the character. She talks in a seductive whisper and smiles a lot. Yet, she doesn't succeed at bringing Anna any smarts, she only makes Anna seem vapid and insecure.
Tina Fey is only in the film for a few minutes. As soon as Mark appears at work, she tells him that he is about to get fired and states "I have always loathed working for you". Again, how can the narrative have it both ways? If people are so quick to tell their impressions of people to them, why has it taken her character so long?
Rob Lowe is just plain creepy as Brad Kessler. Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Fionula Flanagan and others pop up in equally unmemorable roles and don't really seem to understand what they are doing.
"The Invention of Lying" is a film that goes very wrong, very quickly and can't recover.
Skip it. Consider yourself warned.