Ricky Gervais’s new endeavor, The Invention of Lying, was funny enough to cause me to tear up with laughter but daring enough to cause me to shrink into my seat and wait for the theater to burst into flames.
I’ve been stressing about how to handle the delicate subject matter within The Invention of Lying. One might assume based on marketing, that the new Ricky Gervais* film is merely a clever romantic comedy jam-packed with amusing cameos and self-deprecating humor, but it’s so, so much more. In fact, you so, so might walk out of the theater, even, and that’s because the Jim Carrey-esque premise is actually an excuse to wax philosophic about human nature.
And you may not be thrilled with some of the conclusions.
Let’s cover the less controversial ones first! Delay the inevitable! OK, so in the world Mark (Gervais) lives in, nobody has ever lied. Ever! And because it’s never happened, they can’t even fathom the concept. For some reason this also causes them to speak their minds at times when they should shut their traps, and I’m not sure if that’s just for the sake of comedy (imagine a waiter handing you your drink and letting you know that he took a sip on the way over) or if it’s our sense of well-intentioned deceit that we DON’T say exactly what we’re thinking.
It’s interesting to think about. Dumpy, depressed Mark is really into Anna (Jennifer Garner), who is not only beautiful but, we’re told, is also an angel inside. This is a little hard to swallow sometimes, because that woman sure thinks some shallow things – people wearing glasses (??) sitting on a park bench are “losers” and she can’t be with Mark simply because he’s not attractive enough to provide her with pretty kids. Even “I’m just not attracted to you and it’s important that I’m physically into a guy that I’m with” would have been better than “Beautiful genes are the most important thing to me, sorry.” It seems as if the writers (Gervais and Matthew Robinson) believe that in our world, Anna would be a perfect female specimen because she’d be keeping judgmental stuff to herself. I find that a little difficult to swallow.
However, the comparison of Truth World to Real World reveals a lot of things, usually humorously, occasionally poignantly, and sometimes shockingly. For instance, without lies, movies really blow. Fiction, you see, was never invented. Advertising’s purpose is to remind consumers that a product exists and to plead them to buy it. Life in general is a little drab, and the ability to lie is a good thing. That suicidal guy in your building would probably be relieved if you told him that everything was going to turn around for him one day. A part of a doctor’s bedside manner is largely based, we now see, on half-truths and hopeful expressions. We tend to think of lying as a bad thing, but Gervais and Robinson make it very clear that in certain situations, we do each other a disservice when we tell the truth. Or, at least, the truth as we see it.
All right, the time has come for me to grit my teeth and go for it, here. A huge part of this movie is about how religion is a lie. Mark develops the ability to say things that aren’t true, and as a result can convince anyone to do anything he wants. This includes telling his dying mother that the terrifying eternity of nothingness that is her death staring her in the face will actually be a lot more pleasant than she thinks. It’ll be a place where you’ll go on living forever, he says. Where you can have your own mansion, and everybody you love will be there waiting for you. To Mark, the relieved look on her face as she finally passes away is worth the deception, but the unintended consequence is that the hospital staff members who overheard are very, very interested in this whole afterlife idea. Within 24 hours, he’s mobbed by an entire planet that has obviously been oppressed by the fear of death and is desperate to hear that there is something more to life than this. Under enormous pressure, he sits down at his desk and invents religion. The effects are hilarious and eye-opening. Or a little infuriating, depending on your views.
I figure there are enough movies with religious undertones that a blatantly (and literally) agnostic film shouldn’t cause any riots, especially since the movie as a whole is consistently both uproariously funny and sweetly touching. But who knows, maybe knowing about the subject matter before buying tickets will help those who may not agree to accept that this is one point of view and will allow them to sit back and enjoy the writing. And if they can’t, maybe they’ll just opt to see something else instead. Either way, you can’t say I didn’t tell you the truth.
*…whose position in the rom-com world is rising to a surprising prominence, don’t you think?