The Invention of Lying is Ricky Gervais’ first foray into feature film direction. In fact as director, star, producer and co-writer, he had rather a lot on his plate for a man who remains something of a Hollywood novice. In the UK, we know and love Ricky best for his extraordinary work on The Office. He had no difficulty juggling that variety of roles for two successful series; can the transition to the big screen really be a great leap for such a man?
Ricky is tubby loser Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful and slightly repellent middle-aged man living in a world like our own in every respect but one ““ they have no concept of lying. Everything, everyone, may be taken exactly at face value because everyone tells the unadulterated truth right to your face. Regardless of the hurt it may cause. For a man like Mark Bellison the truth packs a punch.
Mark is Lecture Film’s “least successful screenwriter”; an impressive feat when each film they produce is just that ““ pure undiluted fact, delivered by a po-faced man with a book. Any man would be hard pushed to make the 14th century sound dynamic but Mark’s plagued script is a total downer. Boss Anthony has been trying to fire him for weeks, he hasn’t yet plucked up the courage to do so but honesty compels him to tell Mark his intentions. Not the greatest set up for a blind date I think you’ll agree. Anna certainly does.
Jennifer Garner’s Anna is genetically blessed with beauty, success and happiness. (Except for the days when she stays in bed crying and eating.) When she opens the door to Mark she cannot help but be frank. Hilariously so. The peck on the cheek at the end of their night seems destined to be the closest Mark will ever get to a woman like Anna. The only man on a lower rung of the social ladder is fat suicidal neighbour Jonah Hill. In our world we may delude ourselves that things can only get better. For Mark Bellison that is simply not an option. He does however discover a latent talent for deluding others”¦
In many ways this is an impressive film – seeking to tackle big issues and to do so with humour and originality. The sense of place and time is subtly achieved through wardrobe and location, evoking a more simplistic way of life. Predictably there are echoes of The Truman Show, but the geek in me was reminded, by the not-quite-rightness of it all, of Once More With Feeling (the musical episode of Buffy). Anna can never be with Mark because he is not good breeding material, a woman cries outside her workplace because she cannot bear to go in, Mark’s dying Mother is afraid to die because after death there is nothing. It ventures to give a darker view of living an honest life.
For twenty minutes The Invention of Lying is a delight and indeed the entire film has many positives in its favour. Not least the strong supporting cast, the A-list cameos and its brilliantly observed outbursts of truth. Co-writers Gervais and newcomer Matthew Robinson had the seed of a strong idea. There is much to admire, but I’d be lying if I said I liked it. My problem, concisely, is Ricky Gervais. I suspect that most of the reviews you read for this film will sing Ricky’s praises and if we were still in TV series territory I might be more inclined to agree. However, The Invention of Lying is a Hollywood picture and one that seeks to answer some weighty issues (satirically or not). Ricky Gervais does not have the chutzpah to carry this film. I found his performance self-indulgent, jarring and all too horribly familiar. It smacked of his trademark improvisation, pranks and giggles. The Ricky tricks may work in a small screen world revolving around him but in a movie so reliant on chemistry, they fell flat for me.
The downside of Ricky Gervais’ sudden ascent to US stardom is that he hasn’t had time to refine his art. That might sound pretentious but, in order for him to achieve longevity in features, he must develop some range. If you compare him to a performer like Will Ferrell, who also has something of a whacky shtick from his years at Saturday Night Live, the rough edges become apparent. Ferrell is able to dial down the volume on his personality and play against type. He used that ability to move believably from Anchorman to Melinda and Melinda and from Talladega Nights to Stranger Than Fiction. Ricky Gervais, at present, only has one setting – eleven.
With a tighter script and another lead, The Invention of Lying might have been a jolly good watch. Jennifer Garner was as sweet and winning as ever, her comic timing is immaculate and she lent Anna a depth and solemnity that might have been lacking in the hands of another. I am a Jeffrey Tambor nut, have been ever since his days as Hank on The Larry Sanders Show, and I found his portrayal of Lecture Films’ division head another joy. Credit must also go to Rob Lowe for his splendid smarm as work rival Brad ““ undeniably superior yet niggled by Mark’s rise to success. It would be naughty of me to suggest alternative leading men but I cannot resist opining that Paul Giamatti would have fitted in beautifully”¦
I never stopped being aware that I was sitting in a screening room watching a film because Mark never came alive for me. From the cringeworthy “testing, testing” over the opening credits (reminiscent of an ad he has recently produced for Odeon, a flashback I could have lived without) to the awkward triteness of a bedside vigil, the lasting impression I had was of The Oscars opening sequences ““ a presenter superimposed into the movie hit of the year. Funny, but funny because he is so obviously out of place.
Ricky was poor and at times the determination to spank home a message did sit uneasily with me but I believe, for some, The Invention of Lying could be a film worth seeing in spite of its flaws. Not the devil but the delight of this film is in its details. From an honest Coke ad to a photo on the wall in Mark’s apartment there are lovely comic touches scattered throughout. (My personal favourite, a retirement home or Sad Place for Hopeless Old People as the sign so acutely described!) It tries hard and for that reason I cannot think of it too unkindly. At least someone is trying something different. Unusual in these derivative times. I’d take The Invention of Lying over yet another remake any day of the week. And that is the truth.