Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lie Defector

The winning comedy The Invention of Lying, directed, co-written by and starring Ricky Gervais (Ghost Town, Britain’s The Office), imagines a world in which falsehood doesn’t exist and everyone always tells the truth. They don’t know how to do otherwise: in this alternate universe, lies, fiction, irony, imagination and even social niceties are unknown. Daily life is a harsh landscape of unfiltered admissions (“I loathed almost every moment I worked for you”), and rude insults (“You’re fat and have a snub nose”). Advertising is limited to true, mundane assertions (“Coke: It’s Very Famous. Pepsi, When They Don't Have Coke.”) It's a terribly depressing world, this world without lies.

The movie hilariously illustrates the pitfalls of such congenital truthiness in the opening scenes, in which pudgy Mark Bellison (Gervais) calls on pretty Anna (Jennifer Garner) for a blind date. She bluntly states her disappointment in his looks; a waiter serves their cocktails saying, “I had a little sip of this.” When Mark, a screenwriter for a company that makes boring historical documentaries – the only kind of movies that exist in this truthy universe, like “The History of the Fork” and Mark’s downfall, “The Black Plague” -- is fired because his true stories are too -- well, true. He's about to be evicted from his apartment, and in desperation has a sudden impulse to lie in order to get extra money from his bank. As the world’s only man who can lie, Mark decides to use his newfound power to get rich and win Anna, who likes money quite a lot but still finds him insufficiently handsome (not a good “genetic match” for creating the attractive children she requires).

The movie ventures into religious satire as Mark is called upon to comfort his dying mother and “invents” a story about paradise in the afterlife. This makes him an accidental new messiah, a phenomenon that culminates in his delivering a kind of Sermon on the Mount with delivery-pizza boxes as tablets. The movie is sprinkled with droll lines, marvelous visual gags (a nursing home’s with a sign reading “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People”), mild Pythonesque routines and amusing small roles for Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill and Jason Bateman.

Although the movie doesn’t know quite what to do with its good premise and sags considerably after its brilliant opening, it’s still a thoughtful, original and funny movie that blends English humor and American romantic comedy in a refreshing way. Of course most people I know will hate it, but I liked it quite a lot.

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