If Ricky Gervais had only created The Office, he would deserve a place on the upper tier of comic creators, just as John Cleese would merit veneration if he had only signed his name to Fawlty Towers. As Gervais moves from BBC series to feature films, the expectations are high but hardly insurmountable. He doesn’t need anything as ingenious as the series that made his name. Something on par with the follow-up Extras or his much-loved podcasts would do. Up to now, his film work hasn’t really been a test of his own skill. He’s primarily had quick little supporting roles, and he was just a hired gun for his first lead performance. The Invention of Lying is a different matter. Gervais co-wrote the script and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson. This one is undeniably his.
It certainly has a creative premise. Gervais plays a writer on a world just like ours with the significant exception that no one is capable of telling a lie. In fact, such falsehoods are so totally absent that there is no conception of what a lie even is. Without explanation, Gervais’s character suddenly realizes that he can say things that aren’t true. Much of the film follows the repercussions of that discovery as he gets wads of extra cash from the bank when he states that he has a greater balance than the computer indicates or convinces people of a completely fanciful version of history because if it’s being said by someone it must, by definition, be true.
The film calls to mind Mike Judge’s Idiocracy in its revisioning of society to make its comic points. But where Judge’s film took its consideration of the progressive dumbing down of the culture to its logical extremes, rethinking and configuring everything in the process, Gervais and Robinson simply take a wholly recognizable, big American city and graft their notion onto it. Beyond the detail that people don’t simply refrain from lying but spit out every thought that comes into their head because of it, there aren’t all that many aspects of what’s on screen that vary from what you’d see if you momentarily slipped into the next auditorium down in the multiplex. The possibilities are endless, but Gervais and Robinson seem content confining themselves.
It might be more accurate to note that they don’t seem to know what they want to do with their idea. For a while the film is a mix of fantasy and fable as Gervais’s character decadently basks in his newfound powers. Then it takes a more potent satirical bend as he effectively creates religion, largely to comfort his dying mother. And then it spends its last third being little more than a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, with Jennifer Garner playing the object of affection with a furrowed brow sweetness that’s undercut somewhat by that gushed honesty which starts to seem like it’s revealing character flaws that don’t cohere to our leading man’s image of her. While some of these turns in the narrative road hold some promise, particularly the deconstruction of the embedded contradictions of Christianity, Gervais and Robinson don’t see any of it through. It winds up feeling less like productive variety and more like a series of dead ends.
That leaves Gervais relying more and more on familiar tricks. He stammers out his incredulous reactions to the world, while also serving us brutal self-deprecation that borders of masochism, even if he has done it better before. Gervais is gifted enough that much of this is still quite funny, and got a legion of comedy ringers turning in cameos to bolster the material further. But it’s hard to shake the feeling of missed opportunity, the sense that is a lot of messing around instead of dedication to realizing all the comic possibilities, to making this into a real movie.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)