Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Invention of Lying: The truth hurts

The Invention of Lying  (2009) • View trailer for The Invention of Lying
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.8.09
Buy DVD: The Invention of Lying• Buy Blu-Ray: The Invention of Lying [Blu-ray]

This one's a 15-minute stand-up monologue with delusions of grandeur.

Although the premise of The Invention of Lying  written and directed collaboratively by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, and starring Gervais  is intriguing, and no doubt would make a fascinating topic for theological discussion, this 100-minute film runs out of gas long before the halfway point.
Despite his newfound wealth and prestige, Mark (Ricky Gervais, right) still
can't prevent Anna (Jennifer Garner) from preferring the superficial physical
attributes of the pompous and insufferably vain Brad (Rob Lowe).

Much of the blame falls to the direction and many of the performances, which are oddly flat and uninvolving. Gervais is his usual amusingly understated self, and co-stars Jennifer Garner and Rob Lowe bring much-needed sparkle to these proceedings. But everybody else seems to amble about in a perpetual Valium haze, their line-readings delivered with a neither interest nor conviction.

The Invention of Lying takes place in a parallel world precisely like ours, except that people are wired in such a way that they're incapable of anything but the absolute truth. Thus, a standard greeting  "How are you today?"  invites a wealth of excruciating detail, and spontaneous encounters are likely to be quite deflating. ("My, what an ugly baby!")

Somehow, all this raw honesty never leads to violence, as if this world also has been flensed of anger and wounded pride. The moment this penny drops  roughly, oh, five minutes in  the seams of this script begin to spring other leaks, as well. A full-length film, particularly one this languidly paced, gives us far too much time to ponder its many logical flaws.

Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter for the Lecture Films Motion Picture Studios, known by its motto: "We film someone telling you about things that happened." Fiction also doesn't exist in this realm, because fiction is untruth: thus, no novels or dramas of any kind. Movies and TV are nonstop documentaries, and Mark is having serious trouble finding anything "fun" to write about in his given assignment of the 13th century.

A blind date with Anna McDoogles (Garner) doesn't go terribly well, because she candidly admits that she probably won't want to see him again. Things get worse when Mark loses his job and is one day away from being evicted from his apartment. In desperation, he heads to the bank to empty his account; the computers are down temporarily, but of course the teller is willing to take his word for how much remains.

And he lies.

When the computers recover a few seconds later, Mark waits to be hauled off in handcuffs. But no, the teller instead believes that something must be wrong with their system; she simply has no reason to doubt her customer.

A world of possibilities opens up.

What follows is a riff on a classic Charles Beaumont Twilight Zone script, "A Nice Place to Visit": no surprise, since in the press notes Robinson admits getting the basic idea for this film after a weekend spent watching episodes of that early 1960s TV series.

After getting his job back, thanks to a new-found ability to fabricate a "hitherto undiscovered" event that took place in the 13th century  certain to become a blockbuster film hit  Mark sets about re-structuring his life in the manner to which he always wanted to become accustomed.

Thus far, all these proceedings are lightness and froth, designed for little more than quick giggles. But a family crisis puts Mark into a more serious mode, at which point he inadvertently invents religion. (Should this movie become an unlikely hit, I can't wait for the stern remonstrations from humorless Christian fundamentalists furious over the suggestion that "religion is lying.")

And this is roughly the point at which the film loses its bearings.

Having raised this huge theological issue, Gervais and Robinson do little but milk it for obvious gags before abandoning it. Similarly, we're left to wonder how Mark might continue to appease a public desiring more and more of his, ah, fanciful tales of the 13th century.

This is the sort of sloppy high-concept that plagues Hollywood these days: clever ideas that remained unfulfilled.

We can't help wishing for the much more carefully conceived, logically consistent script developed for, say, The Truman Show: a similarly absurd premise that seemed outlandish back in 1998, but in fact anticipated the whole reality-TV craze.

Fortunately, Gervais and Robinson have a much tighter handle on the core relationship between Mark and Anna. She still doesn't view him as a suitable mate  instead preferring the superior DNA of Brad Kessler (Lowe), who as Lecture Films' star screenwriter gets all the "best" centuries  but finds that she enjoys his company and likes him as a friend.

Mark, for his part, cannot lie his way into Anna's heart: not because it wouldn't work, but because he'd know the difference. This subtler aspect of The Invention of Lying works where the broader strokes fail; indeed, the film might more properly be titled The Invention of Sensitivity.

Because, again  for those of us who overthink such things  the necessity to be truthful isn't reflexively in conflict with the notion that if one can't think of anything nice to say, then one should say nothing at all.

Garner, after a ragged start  the early scenes of Anna's first date with Mark are staged quite clumsily  settles nicely into her role, and demonstrates a solid talent for blending light comedy with unexpected poignance. She did the same earlier this year, in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, where she also surprised us by turning an apparently frivolous moment into something much more serious.

Lowe is perfect as a charming, self-absorbed cad: everything that Gervais' Mark isn't (for good and bad).

On the downside, Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. are impressively vacuous as Mark's two friends, Frank and Greg. They're utter nonentities throughout the entire film, and not because their badly scripted characters are one-note losers; the actors themselves don't even try to inhabit their parts. (In fairness, neither has much of a part to inhabit.)

Various A-list celebrities pop up in cameos: Tina Fey, as Mark's contemptuous secretary; Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a bartender; Edward Norton, as an adrenaline-fueled cop; and Jason Bateman, as a bluntly undiplomatic doctor. As no more than examples of stunt casting, they do nothing but reinforce the notion that we're watching a film as bereft of actual honest emotion as Lecture Films' dry-as-toast documentaries.

Gervais never ceases to be a giggle, though; it's hard to resist his oddly dignified, sad sack persona. He, Garner and Lowe are inhabiting a coulda-been film that's better than the one they seem to be stuck in ... and that, ultimately, is the problem.

Robinson is a first-time writer and director, and it shows. The Invention of Lying needed chaperoning by much more competent hands; Gervais' starring presence in a sharper, tighter script could have been a winning combination.

What we've got, alas, is a clever first act with no payoff. And that's no lie.

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