Brandon's Word: The Invention of Lying is a Landmark Comedy
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 3, 2009
Sometimes there are film premises, mere loglines, that cause me to clench my jaw and flush green with jealousy due to their brilliance. Usually, the premises' brilliance is born of its simplicity. And The invention of Lying is brilliant. And, on the surface, it is simple. The film takes place in an alternate world where humans have not evolved with the capacity to lie. Humans are incapable of saying anything that is not -- no matter how callous, inappropriate, or self-deprecating. That is, until Mark Bellison, played by the incomparable Ricky Gervais, tells humankind's first lie. Simple. Deceptively simple.
At first, The Invention of Lying plays out as a farce, using the simplicity of its plot to acclimate the audience to its parallel universe. Clever jabs at advertising, everyday social interactions, and a very cathartic helping of wish fulfillment (where characters, due to their inability to lie, say exactly what we all have so often wanted to say in situations that, under normal circumstances, would make the very utterance of anything similar absolutely forbidden) are all equally funny. But when Mark Bellison's brain changes and the first lie of the film, the first lie ever in his world, is told, the film begins to slide down a very steep, very slippery slope -- one that, until the end, you weren't even aware it was perched on at the start.
About midway through the film, the farce gracefully takes a step back, yielding the stage to a genius, refined satire of religion in tandem with an exaggerated portrayal of the world's first chronic liar. In the film's world, religion has never existed because, as the film implies, religion is a lie; rather, religion is an unknown and to speak of it requires an amount of faith in something that isn't concrete and therefore can not exist in a world of absolute certainty. So, with the introduction of lying, Mark Bellison is able to single-handedly create religion -- in the film's case, he creates Christianity. Of course, Bellison doesn't create it knowingly. But by doing so, he becomes what we know to be a prophet, and what the people in the film think to be the smartest, most insightful man on the planet who is able to speak to a man in the sky who controls everything and is kind of dick. Bellison even imparts his own commandments, though etched on something a bit less sturdy than tablets. From this point, the film becomes a non-stop lampoon of religion. From its very sweet, innocent beginnings that provided comfort to someone close to Bellison (for its inception was born of love) to the religion's absolute power over the entire world's population, the film doesn't pull any punches. But The Invention of Lying is never mean-spirited.
Because this is a fantasy inhabited by characters who are wholly not of our world, even though the very blatant admonishment of religion is there, it's always balanced by the more surface level commentary on the problem with lying in general. The snowball effect of Mark Bellison's super power (which his ability to lie very much is) is always at the forefront. And Ricky Gervais plays the character with enough victimization that the whole thing never feels unbalanced. For the most part, he uses lies to help others and get ahead in his career, while struggling to win Anna McDoogles's heart, who finds him unfit, phenotypically speaking. Opposite Gervais, Jennifer Garner plays Anna McDoogles with such sweetness that the increasingly cynical Bellison is always foiled. And she's always in control, even though Bellison could at any moment lie to her in order to get what he wants, doing so would rob him of what he actually wants: for her to like him of her own accord. Bellison seems to immediately inhabit of a sense of great responsibility (after a few mistakes) as he realizes what great power he possesses.
Overall, The Invention of Lying is a complex, landmark comedy that weaves a love story around a social and religious satire without ever losing the funny. Because, after all, it is a comedy -- and co-writers/co-directors Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson never forget that fact. It's heartfelt without being sappy; it's honest without being mean (except when other characters are talking to Mark Bellison, because then it can be downright cruel -- but since Ricky Gervais wrote the thing and it's his character that everyone takes the piss out of, it's an hilarious, strangely satisfying sadomasochistic skip). And it's always surprising. Like I said: deceptively simple. Honestly, sincerely, brilliantly sublime. A comedy able to hold its own against my favorites of all time: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Caddyshack, Dr. Strangelove, and Old School.
It's such a pleasure to go into a movie to laugh, to actually laugh throughout, and to leave laughing still, but chewing on something more substantial, mulling over the implications of what was just seen. The Invention of Lying enables this. Well played, Gervais. And damn you for creating such genius. (Just thought I'd be honest.)