Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Ricky Gervais co-wrote and co-directed this little gem, so of course it displays his signature brand of awkward humor. “The Invention of Lying” also features a serious, philosophical side of Gervais which I really liked.

Gervais plays Mark, a downtrodden guy in a world much like our own, except that everyone tells the truth, all the time. People aren’t even aware that they could do otherwise, and there is no word for lying. One day, in dire straits, Mark hits upon an amazing idea: He says “something that isn’t.” He tells a bank teller that his account contains more money than it really does. She takes his word for it, of course, and assumes that her computer is incorrect in showing a much smaller balance. With a wad of cash in hand, Mark goes out to pay his bills and reflect on this new possibility he has discovered. Soon he is using lies to fool a cop, get rich, and further his screenwriting career, which was traditionally limited to recounting true events from history.

Everything is going swell until Mark finds himself facing his mother on her death-bed. She is terrified of facing “an eternity of nothingness.” To ease her passing, Mark makes up his biggest lie yet: He tells her that rather than nothingness, she is going to a wonderful place when she dies, with a mansion, and she’ll get to see all the people she ever loved who have died. The fib works wonders, as Mark’s mom dies happy and peaceful, but the doctors and nurses overhear his story and spread the word about this “new information about what happens when we die.” Soon, Mark finds himself at the center of one gigantic, worldwide, snowballing lie.

“The Invention of Lying” could just as easily have been titled “The Invention of Religion,” and the point of the film, of course, is that the two are essentially equivalent. The film is not at all subtle in saying that religions are just a bunch of stories that people made up to make everyone feel better about death. No new philosophical ground is covered here, but “The Invention of Lying” deals with the subject quite amusingly, and you have to admire Gervais’s chutzpah. Hollywood frequently pretends that religion doesn’t exist, but it’s a rare film that directly espouses atheism.

Will religious people be able to enjoy this movie? I guess it depends on the person. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rated “The Invention of Lying” as "O - morally offensive" calling it “venomous and pervasively blasphemous.” You can take the Bishopric at its word (full review at or check out the surprisingly open-minded review at a site called Christianity Today. (

Beyond the religion angle, “The Invention of Lying” obliquely explores some interesting ideas about the nature of social interaction and imagination. I found it interesting that the people in the fictitious world of this movie don’t just tell the truth when asked, they blurt out whatever is on their mind. When Mark and his date Anna (Jennifer Garner) enter a restaurant, the hostess says to the gorgeous Anna, “Hello, I’m threatened by you.” Mark’s secretary greets him with, “I’m thinking of how overqualified I am for my job, and how incompetent you are at yours.” People say these things without any malice or thought for how the other person will take it. It’s as if everyone in Mark’s world is semi-autistic. I think that co-writers Gervais and Robinson meant to suggest that the missing element in these people’s brains is imagination. They cannot imagine what another person might feel upon hearing a harsh comment any more than they can imagine saying something that isn’t so. When Mark unlocks his ability to lie, he uses it for personal gain, but he also starts telling little white lies and even holding back hurtful comments to spare others’ feelings. To circle back to the religion angle, Mark’s new ability to lie could be a metaphor for the biblical Fall. In Genesis, the Apple gave Adam and Eve awareness of Good and Evil, bringing them from an animal state of innocence to a more complex, more human state. Once he tells that first fib, Mark also steps up to a more human plane of existence, where he is more aware and more responsible for his own actions and for the effect they have on others.

There’s also a love story in here (Isn’t there always?), as Mark tries to woo Anna. The romantic angle in this film is nothing special, but I did like that Mark makes it a point not to use lies to win the girl because, as he later tells Anna, “It wouldn’t have counted.” At the end of the day, lies are only useful if they serve some kind of truth, and Mark wisely realizes that it is Anna’s love that he craves, not a facsimile of her love based on lies.

“The Invention of Lying” is not a perfect movie, but it is thoughtful and a lot of fun. In general, if you are a religious person, this film has the potential to make you uncomfortable. If you can handle it, I suggest you give it a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

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