Despite his enormous success in the UK and cult status in the US, Ricky Gervais has yet to take the box office by storm. Some blame the advertisers for letting his movies slip between the cracks. Others point the finger at political correctness and the way it restricts American sensibilities. I just think his absurdist wit far too British for global appeal. This may come as a surprise to the countless critics who’ve accused the comedian of selling out, but I can’t think of a single Hollywood trope in The Invention of Lying.
The story takes place in an alternate universe much like our own, except no one bears false witness, not even advertisers, casinos, or fiction writers. From that sentence alone, you might expect a brutal social satire that takes potshots at our political system, and, for the most part, you’d be wrong. In an ingenious twist, the inventor of lying, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais), turns out a good man who immediately uses his gift to make the world a better place. His best laid plans all backfire, of course, but not because deception is inherently bad so much as because people in his world have yet to develop critical thought.
It’s worth noting that human beings in The Invention of Lying don’t just partake in brutal honesty. They also lack the capacity to recognise false belief, relying entirely on snap judgment because they never doubt the lies they tell themselves. Imagine a society in which your awkward, unkempt neighbour, Greg (Louis C.K.), is consigned to a solitary existence because no one looks past first impressions, or one in which your loving soul mate, Anna (Jennifer Garner), refuses to go out with you because her mother (Donna Sorbello) said you’re not good enough and she never thought to question it.
By the way, this inability to understand false belief is based on a recorded psychological phenomenon among younger children. Have you ever corrected a three-year-old on erroneous trivia only for the little tyke to exclaim, “That’s what I said,” shrug, and walk away? Don’t get mad. The kid isn’t lying to feed his or her ego so much as unconsciously rewriting past experiences to concord with a newfound reality. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance, one that, according to The Invention of Lying, we outgrow as part of a crucial evolutionary process.
Mind you, the film presents some inconsistencies by virtue of its universe mirroring our own so closely. I’m curious, for example, who came up with the first casino in a world without false hope, and how a literal mind like Anna’s interprets an idiom like, “I’ve got to go,” when she, in fact, doesn’t have to go anywhere and just wants to hang up the phone. The screenplay also takes a few shortcuts by having Mark whisper his white lies in people’s ears, depriving us of their alleged wisdom.
Fortunately, the cast treats every moment with conviction, allowing the characters to come off as loveable victims of a genetic quirk rather than obnoxious tools in a sketch comedy. This proves crucial, given the distractingly numerous cameos by the likes of Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, and Jason Bateman, whose deadpan affectations might have grown tiresome if not for the leads’ more grounded performances. Consider the way Garner retains our sympathy all the while behaving like a judgmental shrew. We sense that “truth” serves as a prison for Anna, and perhaps for our hero too, as Gervais uses his habitual persona to convey the frustrations of the smartest man on earth.
Setting their sights higher than tenderised horsemeat, Gervais and Matthew Robinson, who co-wrote and co-directed The Invention of Lying, aren’t interested in denouncing our politicians and corporate overloads so much as in exposing our more subtle institutional fallacies, such as the way we ignore kindness and imagination as valuable genetic traits. Take, for instance, the subplot in which Mark invents religion to give hope to the suicidal only for them to use heaven as an excuse for complacency. The filmmakers aren’t arguing that religion is a lie (this, they take for granted) but that the lie was created with the best intentions. Unfortunately, no single deception can change human nature.
In light of such bold, controversial statements, I have difficulty understanding how Gervais could be accused of caving to the Hollywood formula. After all, The Invention of Lying doesn’t feature a loveable jerk in need of redemption. Rather, it tells of an incorruptible altruist challenging our notions of worth, love, genetics, and spirituality by recognising the basic mechanics of fallacy. How many rom-coms can tackle these complex issues with uncompromising irony and still get me teary-eyed by the second act?