Ricky Gervais seems to have come a long way from his early beginnings as a failed pop star. A few appearances on late night television, a radio show, a sit-com behemoth that seemed to come from nowhere and the momentum has hardly stopped since. Accredited by many for kick-starting mass appeal of the podcast format and with sell out stand up tours to his name, it was always perhaps going to be seen as the next logical step to move into the world of cinema. A short hop over the Atlantic, where the cream of the US comedy scene seem to adore him, and his movie career has already begun. His previous film Ghost Town received many favourable reviews, but a few naysayers claimed the funny man had somehow lost his way and that the comedy that made him great was lost in translation. This could be down to several factors, but chiefly the fact that Gervais had no artistic control over the vehicle was seen as an indication of him moving out of the field where he is most comfortable, with his success up to that point being firmly rooted in his involvement in all stages, both behind and in front of the camera. So, with what some saw as a slight misstep behind him, The Invention of Lying sees Gervais take back the initiative, having co-written and co-directed the feature alongside Matthew Robinson. The key question being, is it a true return to form?
The foundations look well laid, with Gervais having a hand in proceedings behind the scenes and with his pen being behind his on screen antics, my expectations were reasonably high but restrained given the faltering of many British comedians to make the transition to large US films. The concept is fairly original, the premise being akin to the opposite of Liar, Liar, with the twist here being that everyone in the world can only tell the truth, that is until Mark Bellison (Gervais), a struggling screenwriter, one day discovers the art of lying. It is certainly a promising set-up for comedy to ensue, but it becomes clear fairly early on that there is little real logic backing up this inventive hook. The opening twenty minutes are formulaic to say the least, with the emphasis being on making Bellison the butt of every moment he is on screen interacting with others and it is here that we see the cracks starting to appear. Unlike Gervais's other more iconic comic creations such as David Brent (The Office) or Andy Millman (Extras), Bellison is never seen doing anything that could possibly warrant the outpouring of vitriolic abuse he suffers. He is neither egotistical, pompous nor anti-social; all the key staples of some of Ricky's best characters. Instead, he is merely a Joe Average figure, waddling his stumpy little legs through an office full of individuals keen to tell him home truths that are patently unwanted and downright hurtful. Rather than place the viewer in the corner of the beleaguered and hapless target of bullying, it raises more questions about the rules that govern this world and just how much thought has gone into the writing of this film. Characters don't simply respond with the truth when confronted with a question as one would expect, they instead have a form of verbal diarrhoea whereby any social interaction between two people results in unprompted statements. The film becomes less about what life would be like if no one could lie, and more akin to a “what if” scenario where everyone in the world had a form of Tourette's syndrome but without the swearing or tics, thus being unable to control the path between brain and mouth even when a dialogue on a given subject hasn't been entered into. Scene; two people meet, one mouths a sociable pleasantry and the other says whatever is in their minds, with next to no point being made about truth or lying but rather a case of what would happen if the human brain had no way of omitting unimportant information and subsequently vocalising it in every single conversation.
So if the concept lacked a touch of polish, what about the rest of the plot? Well, the film revolves not just around Bellison's discovery of lying but also around his infatuation with Anna (played by Jennifer Garner). It is quite quickly established that we are shifting into Rom-Com territory, which even ardent Gervais fans would probably admit isn't his safe ground. The shift towards the romantic angle isn't always at the forefront of the action, but it becomes apparent that the conclusions of the tale and the main points will revolve around the will they won't they nature of Mark and Anna's relationship. The prime problem blocking their chances of being together is the fact that Anna doesn't want to procreate with a short fat man with a pudgy nose. Quite why a world unable to lie leaves individuals so totally callous and superficial is never quite resolved and is simply one of the many large holes in the logic of the film. Garner plays romance well and Gervais, to his credit, doesn't descend into attempting to play the typical leading man figure. The central flaw to this side of the film is that Anna is never established as a likeable leading lady. We don't see the crush Mark has on her grow over time, he doesn't see her from afar and slowly build up the courage to speak to her or anything of the sort. Instead we are thrown into the scenario where we are told that he has a crush on her and even after she has proceeded to continue to bring up his physical flaws in almost every encounter and we have been given no chance of seeing any profoundly redeeming qualities, other than sitting with him when his mother dies, yet we are still told that he considers her the kindest and most caring person he has ever met. That there is any pull to this side of the story is down to the charisma that Gervais and Garner bring to the table and at least it is a constant theme that the former is far out of the league of the latter, but it is hard to escape the fact that we are watching what is akin to Lou Costello fawning over Marilyn Monroe and that at some point we will be pushed towards the inevitable conclusion that they are somehow meant for each other.
The genuine originality comes around mid way through, where the results of Bellison's words to his dying mother lead the world to believe he has some knowledge of what happens after death. Things snowball and before you know it Mark is laying down the laws of a religion. Now I must admit that I'm a real sucker for poking fun at religion and the like but this limp swipe at pointing out the flaws of organised religion falls quite flat despite the sound ideas behind it. Bellison appears carrying two Pizza Hut boxes (cough - product placement) onto which are scrawled rules people are to adhere to, as laid down by “The Man In The Sky” and told through Mark. A few thoughts about the improbability of a creator figure and how to abide by such rules may be cutting to the American Bible belt, but in all honesty there isn't anything here said that hasn't been part of celluloid history many times before. It may be done in a slightly different manner but the fifteen minute sequence would have provided enough material to fill two minutes in one of Gervais stand up tours. Ultimately, as a fan who has followed his career since first seeing him on The 11 O'Clock Show, I can't help but feel that this has the air of mid career Dudley Moore about it. The first half relies heavily on numerous notable American comedians and actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, Christopher Guest and Rob Lowe playing what appears to be nothing more than a differently dressed Benjamin Kane from Wayne's World. The rest of the film pushes further into a semi intelligent questioning of people's motives and the “what if” scenario but with no great sense or substance behind it. I take no pleasure in sounding so negative about the work of one of British comedies shining lights but it is hard to like a film when the sole moment of laughter to me came when Steve Merchant and Barry from Eastenders (Shaun Williamson) entered the fray for a ninety second flashback sequence. Considering the wealth of truly golden material in his back catalogue, ranging from podcasts and radio shows, to sit-coms and stand-up gigs, it is hard not to forgive Gervais for this misstep, but I'm struggling to find any redeeming qualities to this film other than a few half baked ideas that never reached fruition.
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