Ricky Gervais may be the funniest man alive, and he got that way by looking more deeply into the mind and soul of the man we so cruelly call the “loser” than anyone in movies or television has done to date. His character, David Brent, in the original, British version of “The Office,” is a comic creation for the ages — one whose towering stature can be measured against the scaled-down, American version of him played by Steve Carell. American network TV couldn’t bear that unflinching gaze into the abyss of loserdom that David Brent represented. As with so many other things, we had to sentimentalize and trivialize him. Now, to judge from Mr. Gervais’s new film, The Invention of Lying, he has had to pay the price of working in the American film industry by pre-emptively sentimentalizing another loser who might otherwise have stood comparison with David Brent. He could also have added an unexpectedly theological dimension to the whole concept of the loser — Jesus Christ, he reminds us, was one of life’s losers — but he chooses instead to use religion only for laughs.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with laughs, and The Invention of Lying is filled with them. Its “high concept” is of a world in every respect exactly like our own except that, like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, the inhabitants are incapable of lying. Like the Houyhnhnms too, they haven’t even got a word for “lie,” “liar,” or “lying” — though the Houyhnhnms invented the circumlocutory “say the thing that is not” when provoked to it by Gulliver. Mr. Gervais plays Mark Bellison, this world’s Gulliver. Mark is a screenwriter for Lecture Pictures — all movies are filmed lectures of “stories from history” given by a po-faced Christopher Guest, since they also have no concept of fiction — who suddenly and inexplicably discovers the lie and its usefulness when nobody else in the world has done so. Like Gulliver, too, he struggles to explain to others what lying is and has recourse to a similar formula, telling his friends that he has “said something that wasn’t.” They are even less successful than the Houyhnhnms in getting their minds around the concept.
But the real story the film tells is not of the invention of lying, which happens in an instant and remains unexplained, but the invention of love in a world of Houyhnhnm-like rationalists — and, of course, of love’s relationship to lying. As a loser, Mark is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner), a woman who, as everyone tells him — since there is no such thing as the white lie or diplomatic discretion — is “way out of your league.” She tells him herself. Though she likes him, he is a loser and unattractive: fat and with a snub nose. Surely, he must be able to see that his genetic make-up is no match for hers? She doesn’t want little fat kids with snub noses. Anyone who has ever seen a movie could write the rest of the script, minus the jokes, from there on out, which is not necessarily a disqualification from movie quality but is something of a burden for the script to carry.
That it succeeds in carrying it to the extent it does has to do with the fact that The Invention of Lying is also a philosophical movie. The underlying thinking behind it is that the world is a miserable place which only lying can make bearable. Do you begin to see where religion is going to come into the story? Hence, too, the connection between love and lying, which reflects a similar connection between the cold-blooded rationalism of everyone but Mark and their merciless and unfeeling truthfulness. To accept the challenge of showing how small a leavening of falsehood is required to make love grow and for life in general to become bearable takes a considerable artistic ambition, and to succeed, even to the limited extent that this movie does, is therefore no mean feat. But how much better it might have been if the concept of falsehood itself could have been examined for ambiguities and uncertainties! Do we always perfectly know what is true and what is false? It’s easier to assume that we do.
Structurally, there are three pivotal moments in the movie. The first is the actual invention of lying when, after loser Mark is fired from his job and evicted from his apartment, he goes to the bank to withdraw what little money he has left. The rent is $800 and he has a balance of only $300. But the bank’s computer system is down, so the teller asks Mark how much he wants to withdraw. To the accompaniment of a screen-graphic suggesting the revolutionary nature of the mental moment, he suddenly decides to ask for the $800 he needs to avoid eviction. Just then, the computers come back up. “Oh,” says the teller, “it says here you only have a balance of $300” — whereupon she apologizes for the bank’s mistake and hands him the $800.
There follow a number of comic vignettes in which Mark tries out his new and unheard-of skill with hilarious effects. They also work a dramatic change in his fortunes, turning him from a loser into a fabulously wealthy screenwriter. But Anna still spurns his romantic advances on the grounds that it is not reasonable for her to want little fat kids with snub noses. Besides, now she is being romanced by Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), Mark’s much better-looking colleague at Lecture Pictures. Things then take a more serious turn as Mark’s mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is taken from “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People” where she lives to the hospital where there is, naturally, no pretense that she is not about to die. When she confesses her fears of “an eternity of nothingness,” Mark reassures her with a story about the happy land of love and reunion and eternal mansions that lies before her.
She dies happy, but suddenly everyone else is curious about the afterlife that no one had known about before but that now everyone accepts without question. “What else happens? Can you tell us more, please?” Mark is forced to come up with a whole invented narrative of “the Man in the Sky” who speaks to him alone and who tells him of the world to come and what you have to do to get into the good place and to avoid the bad place. Don’t do bad things, basically. You get three chances before you’re sent to the bad place, says Mark. “Like baseball!” say the people. And: “We have to hear everything that’s bad.” Mark seems to agree, but we don’t hear him getting any further than rape and murder. He doesn’t mention theft, for instance, which we know him to be guilty of. But then it’s all a lie to him anyway.
The third pivotal moment comes when Mark refuses to use his unique power to lie in order to win the love of Anna. Has he, perhaps, come to believe his own lies about the eternal consequences of doing bad things? It would have made for a better movie, I think, if he had, but no, he confesses to Anna that there is no Man in the Sky. She takes it remarkably well, considering how fascinated she, along with everybody else in the world, has been with his tales of the afterlife. Like everybody else in the world, too, apart from Mark, she doesn’t really understand how it’s possible for him to have said something that isn’t. In a way, Mr. Gervais’s fantasy is a subtler version of Zombieland, in which the heroes’ remarkable powers are only those of ordinary humanity but magnified by the absence of any other ordinary human beings.
The Invention of Lying has been criticized in some quarters for being anti-religious, but it is so only in the most literal sense. The dramatic impetus of the mise en scène is pro-religious — since the big lie has only benign effects — just as it is pro-love and pro-family, and Ricky Gervais’s denial of the gravamen of his own creation by insisting that it is a lie seems curiously weightless and insignificant, a way of backing out of the complexities he himself has established without damage to the Hollywood imperative to keep it light and funny and to wrap up the rom-com plot in well under two hours. It’s a pity he didn’t have more of a belief in Ricky Gervais. God could have been left to take care of himself.