dirs: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
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I’d heard a lot of bad things about this flick, not just from the average tubes of the internets level of discourse being “it’s the shittest thing ever shat out of a studio or an orifice”, but also from trusted friends, allies and confidantes, who all said, with their superior level of expression and articulation “it’s fucking shithouse, don’t see it.”
With that in mind I had one of those experiences where lowered expectations took the sting out of something I otherwise might not have liked as much, and I even ended up enjoying it. And I even laughed, which is virtually unheard of with comedies, that most serious of genres.
Ricky Gervais is who he is, and he’s very good at being Ricky Gervais. He’s also managed to very successfully parlay this version of Ricky Gervais to the world (well, to America, at least). He’s done so well at it that they (they being Hollywood) have been dazzled enough by his British wit and blinding smile into letting him direct his own films. Where he gets to play Ricky Gervais all over again.
Sure, he’s better at it than anyone else, but then that’s like being the best compulsive masturbator in a porno theatre: a dubious honour at the best or worst of times, and even then the other wankers around you aren’t looking to crown their natural king. They’re too busy, as it is.
Don’t misconstrue my words for condemnation of Gervais: I find him quite hilarious in all his thinly veiled incarnations, whether it’s as David Brent on The Office or Andy in Extras, or the chap he plays here, being Mark Bellison, all of whom are indistinguishable from each other. I even really enjoy his stand-up work, because he’s a funny guy and a solid performer despite his flop-sweaty nervous shtick, or perhaps because of it.
None of this guarantees success in the cinematic field, however. Far from it.
The Invention of Lying depends on a conceit so fundamental and so polarising that I can fully appreciate how many people couldn’t accept the premise for any length of time, and especially as the film rambles on. The world depicted in this flick is pretty much like any of the duller American towns (it looks like some dull burg in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts) in existence, except it transpires in a world in which one primary aspect of reality has never occurred: no-one to this stage has ever told a lie. Everyone tells the absolute truth whenever they speak or are asked a question. Fiction has never been invented, so fiction books and movies don’t exist. Advertising is completely unadorned and honest. People are boorishly blunt and undiplomatic. And thus funny, if you like that kind of thing.
It’s a fairly horrible place, in other words, populated with soulless and horrible people. Amongst these dregs of sub-humanity is Mark who, under the pressure of looming eviction and unemployment, tells this world’s first lie.
Because the world itself isn’t able to contemplate the possibility of something not being true, every lie he tells is believed unequivocally, which pretty much means he can change reality at his whim.
Sure, the purpose is comedic, as in it’s meant to be a satirical look at the world we actually live in today, what with its abundance of lies and fictions and illusions that we live with today. But it has a serious point to make too: it’s that, you know, all that religion stuff is bullshit.
In this world where advertising has to be prosaic and blunt and everyone says exactly what they think, people are still capable of relationships. The problem isn’t that people avoid love, it’s just that without lies and self-delusion, people only hook up with people who are their genetic equivalent or better, for the purposes of procreation.
So even though the first real and unselfish use of his power is to assuage his mother’s fears regarding death, most of his efforts are devoted to convincing a hideously anorexic and deformed-through-plastic-surgery monster girl called Anna (Jennifer Garner) that she should be with him romantically.
The part of the film addressed by the first part of that last sentence is far more interesting, and rewarding, than the second part of that sentence. That’s a really convoluted way of saying the bits with Jennifer Garner are bad and hard to watch.
It’s not because she’s a bad actress, it’s just that looking at her is a painful and unedifying experience. And watching Gervais pin the “pay off” of his script on whether these two people hook up despite the fact that she’s an Aryan Superwoman, and he’s some shmuck from Slough, is irritating.
As is common in everything Gervais does, there’s a lot of humour at his character’s expense, mostly mocking him for his perceived physical failings or general loserness. But the redemption is supposed to come from the fact that even if he is a frumpy dumpling, a woman will still love him anyway against her own superficial judgments because he’s so ace and funny.
The problem with this set up is that she’s a hideous troll with a hollowed out, hungry face and surgically smooshed lips, and he’s Ricky Gervais, the most powerful man in his world. So it just isn’t that worth the investment, by us or him.
The other, better aspect, where he comforts his dying mother, who is terrified of slipping into nothingness and oblivion upon death, he is moved by genuine emotion to tell her that, to quote the Nick Cave song of the same name, Death Is Not the End.
He tearfully tells her that she won’t just be snuffed out, that shell go to an awesome place where everyone she’s ever known will be waiting, and she’ll get to live in a giant mansion in the sky for all eternity.
It sounds vaguely familiar, I’m just not sure where I’ve heard it before.
She dies, and he mourns. This being the world it is, his mother believed him completely, and it gave her comfort as she lay dying. The problem is, in this literal world that believes everything this one liar says, all the staff in the hospital believe him as well. And so does the rest of the world once they hear about it.
So, with the entry of lying in the world, comes religion. But Mark’s inventions regarding a man in the sky who sees everything everyone does, who sends people, dependent on their actions, to a horrible place or a mansion when they die, has, as you might expect, unexpected consequences.
Unlike the people that have done it on our planet, he isn’t seeking to control people, or to shame them into not doing the stuff he secretly wishes he was doing, or compelling one set of people to butcher another for his amusement or gain. Needless to say, he has less blood on his hands than every pope or ayatollah in human history. He spins his theological lies more out of the very Gervaisian compulsion to work his way out of a difficult situation. He’s been caught in a lie, and as we all well know, in our world based as it is on a healthy diet of lies, the only way out is through more lies.
And yet he still brings it back down to all being about Jennifer Garner’s piranha-like visage. I appreciate the obvious slights against the Judeo-Christian sky god bullshit, but I wish it was even moreso about that stuff. Every time the story diverged from that and went back to being about whether Garner’s horrible character would marry a horrible character played by Rob Lowe, or the genetically flawed but ‘good’ Gervais character, I thought it was a bad move.
If you came to this flick expecting a romantic comedy, you were probably murderously disappointed. But if you’re capable of suspending disbelief long enough to enjoy an admittedly ludicrous film that isn’t anywhere near as funny as it wishes it was (hence the desperate and unnecessary voiceover at the beginning that sounds entirely like a fearful studio thinking audiences would be too stupid to understand the premise). I’m sure there were compromises along the way, but, for my money, this wasn’t too bad.
6 ways in which movies about lying please the Father of Lies out of 10
“Just because he's talking to the man in the sky doesn't mean he's good enough to be your friend.” – I see lots of people talking to the man in the sky on public transport, and they’re not usually worth making friends with either – The Invention of Lying