DVD Release Date:  January 19, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  October 2, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for language including some sexual material and a drug reference)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  100 min.
Directors:  Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Actors:  Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Louis C.K.

Judged solely by its trailer, The Invention of Lying almost feels like one of Tom Shadyac's kooky comedic parables. You know, movies like Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty that star Jim Carrey and have a semblance of truth, spiritual or otherwise, nestled between an absurd premise and all his rubber-faced antics.

Now I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I'm guessing that's exactly what Ricky Gervais was going for when marketing The Invention of Lying, (minus Carrey in the lead, of course). Given that he's a Brit still trying to successfully cross over into American cinema (last year's Ghost Town was liked by a few critics including yours truly, but performed poorly from a commercial standpoint), it's best just to stick with what's universally funny to hook the audience—and then once they're already seated, lower the boom.

And that's exactly what Gervais does with The Invention of Lying, a story with genuine laugh-out-loud potential that takes a sharp, unexpected turn into serving as the actor/director's personal atheistic soapbox.  But more on that in a minute. …

Set in a culture not much different from our own, but with one major caveat considering no lies have ever been told, the story gets off to a promising-enough start. Beginning with the scene the trailer zeroed in on, Mark (Gervais) has a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), a pretty, successful but rather shallow woman who immediately lets him know in many, many words that she's out of his league.

As if her lack of anything resembling a filter didn't already harm Mark's frail sense of self, she takes a call from her Mom (yep, with him within earshot) and lets her know just how bad of a prospect he is: "He's a little bit fat and has a snub nose. And no, I won't be sleeping with him tonight … probably not even a goodnight kiss."

Turns out, these people aren't only unabashedly honest without any prompting at all, but they don't even care if what they're saying hurts people's feelings. Or borders on TMI. But I digress. …

Unfortunately, things at the office aren't much better for Mark either. He's a screenwriter (and apparently, not a very good one from the sounds of it) for a dull lecture film company since no one has the imagination for dreaming up fiction, of course. Not only do his co-workers (played by Tina Fey and Rob Lowe, respectively) hate him and tell him as much, but he's on the verge of getting fired, too. Then once his boss actually works up the courage to do so, well, Mark doesn't have enough money to cover his rent, leading to his immediate eviction.

When withdrawing the last $300.00 from his bank account, however, Mark has a major brainstorm when he's asked how much cash he'd like back. With the system down and the whole honesty culture firmly in tact, the teller will automatically believe whatever he says, so what if he fudged a little? Really, could his situation get that much worse if she rejected his request?

Well, his plan couldn't have worked out better. Even when the system goes back online a few seconds later, she just assumes it was the computer's mistake and gives him the extra $500.00, enough to prevent him from becoming homeless for another month. More than that, though, she hands him the keys to life's proverbial kingdom. And it doesn't take long for him to use this newfound discovery to his advantage.

By telling lies left and right, he's wealthy, successful and even helped a few needy people along the way. Trouble is, even though he now meets Anna's requirements for a husband in the income and prestige departments, he still doesn't have the right genetics to ensure their children won't look like him. So while he's got almost everything he wants, he still can't get the girl. And somehow, even with his skewed moral compass, he won't trick her into marrying him either, even when he has the opportunity.

Really, a good point here could've been made in light of Mark's new circumstances or even about the importance of honesty, given our society's tendency to lie whenever it's convenient. But rather than develop that, Gervais, who co-wrote the script with his writing partner Matthew Robinson, heads in a different direction that completely (and unfortunately) changes the movie's tone.

See, Mark is dealing with another sad reality:  his mom is dying and feeling hopeless about her future of "nothingness." To appease her sadness, Mark invents a "story" about a place where people go after they die, an eternal resting place where everyone gets his/her own mansion and is happily reunited with loved ones. As he elaborates on what's essentially heaven, she's immediately encouraged and eventually dies in peace. Case closed, right?

Hardly. Given that the nurses overheard Mark's story, word quickly spreads about this place where everyone gets a mansion and lives forever, and Mark is forced to answer to his now-adoring public. When asked how he knows this, and who told him by a crowd that's growing by the second, Mark "invents" the all-powerful Man in the Sky, an invisible being who has chosen to tell him—only him—specifically about these important matters.

Now of course, the troubling subtext here is that only a group of people this naïve could believe in God, right? After all, they'll take anything at face value, so why not belief in a higher power?

Truth be told, Mark does sound pretty ridiculous when talking about The Man in the Sky because he lacks anything close to reverence and has the story all wrong in the first place. Later, when Mark is forced to answer the people's very specific questions about the Man in the Sky and whether he's caused all the pain and suffering in the world, things get even more irreverent.

Saying he'll get back to them soon, he disappears so he can figure out "the rules" of how people qualify for heaven and how they should live in the meantime. Continuing the whole prophet Moses motif, he writes the commandments on two halves of a Pizza Hut box and eventually reports back to crowd, which only offers more opportunities for belief in God to look downright silly and intellectually unsophisticated.

Yet while taking these cheap pot shots at faith and The Bible in a decidedly Bill Maher Religulous fashion, what Gervais probably didn't realize is that there's ultimately a very refreshing truth in the midst of all the lies. And the moral he ends the story with is, ironically, straight from The Bible.

SPOILER ALERT:  After Anna decides not to marry Mark's genetically superior arch nemesis, she goes for a walk and notices a chubby boy eating ice cream and subsequently, being teased for being "short and fat" by his peers. Immediately, she feels compassion for his hurt feelings and comforts him, a real turning point for her character.

Ultimately realizing that people, including her best friend Mark whom she's overlooked time and again, shouldn't be judged by their outward appearance, but by their hearts, it immediately brings to mind what God said in 1 Samuel 16:7 before Samuel anointed David, a small, shepherd boy who didn't exactly seem like the obvious choice: "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
      
CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Social drinking, including the frequent abuse of alcohol by Mark's suicidal neighbor, Frank (Jonah Hill). Another character drives while he's drunk, plus Frank suggests he might try killing himself by overdosing on drugs.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few uses of profanity, including an instance where a character, who is angry when it's suggested that God causes all the bad things that happen in the world, says "F*** the man upstairs!" There are also derogatory words used repeatedly for homosexuals.
  • Sex/Nudity:  When Mark first meets Anna, she tells him that his early arrival interrupted her while she was masturbating. One of Mark's friends says his biggest wish is to touch a woman's breasts. To get an attractive woman to sleep with him, Mark informs her that the world is ending, and they must have sex to prevent that from happening. But once they actually arrive at a hotel (where the sign says it's typically used for intercourse with someone you just met), Mark feels bad and eventually calls the whole thing off.
  • Violence:  Only of a comedic variety.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.