The Invention of Lying
In a recent interview on Conan O’Brien’s late night show, Michael Moore told a story about the difficulty in making a movie about the evils of capitalism (his new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, you can read my review here, a longer version will appear soon) for a studio*, a business that thrives on capitalism. He said that he had to lie and tell them in his pitch that he was going to make a sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11 and he avoided telling them the truth until the latest possible moment.
One wonders if the writer/directors of The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson had the same problem as Moore did; only they had intended to follow through on their original pitch, and found themselves abandoning it. Gervais was probably offered a deal to make anything he wanted, after the huge critical and financial successes of his British TV shows The Office (the original British series) and Extras. And with such a promising idea in front of them, that being a man who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth, because lying hasn’t been invented yet, until he discovers it, they probably thought it was a can’t miss.
Unfortunately, Gervais and Robinson drop the truth-telling conceit almost immediately. Instead of everyone just giving honest answers to questions, characters offer up unmotivated insults, an expression of their true feelings, but it really just means they don’t have that internal censor that most people have to make sure they aren’t constantly offending society. The world wouldn’t function if everyone’s feelings were hurt all the time, and so Gervais’ character, an unsuccessful screenwriter (in the world of The Invention of Lying, they only make dry documentaries about historical events, and he’s been burdened with the assignment of the 13th Century, so he mainly writes about The Black Plague), is apparently the only person that we see who actually has real emotions. It’s a strange disconnect because the other characters have deliberately been made completely shallow, only interested in how people look and whether or not they’ll make good genetic partners (everyone who isn’t considered attractive is thought of as a loser). Some of this material is very funny, the opening scene has Gervais and love interest Jennifer Garner going on a blind date, and she immediately informs him that she would have been to the door earlier, had she not been masturbating. When Gervais visits his ailing mother, the local nursing home is labeled as being for “sad, lonely, old people.” Gervais’ secretary, played by Tina Fey, tells him that she’s not going to bother doing any work that day, because his boss is going to come fire him, and instead she’ll look for a new job on Craigslist.
While The Invention of Lying is going through these humorous variations on hostile venom unsheathed, it works. However, that’s really just an idea for a short film and so Gervais and Robinson have to expand on their mutated concept to justify the cost. The more generic elements that are thrown onto the film like Velcro appendages are odd distractions; Garner’s character is cold, mean, and humorless, and yet Gervais expresses frequently how she’s the most fantastic person she’s ever met. While that could be a joke on how shallow Gervais is, since the only possible reason he’d want her is her elf-like good looks. Obviously the romance scenes are unconvincing and so the detour of The Invention of Lying towards religious parables is an interesting respite, if a bit jarring. It also contributes to easily the most blatant product placement in the history of film, and not just because Budweiser bottles are center of frame in virtually every scene. In the midst of giving us a rather clever explanation for how religion, God, and Jesus might have become part of the collective consciousness, it appears that Pizza Hut may have sponsored the creation of the bible. Gervais reads from his fantastical script to a crowd full of people as two pizza boxes stare us down for at least ten minutes of screen time.
The shamelessness with which the advertising is presented almost makes you forgot the other portions of the film that normally would be quite the eyesore. The star cameos in The Invention of Lying are non-stop, and always blatantly pointed out as if this were a Cannonball Run sequel (Ed Norton as a cop! Phil Hoffman as a bartender! Jeffrey Tambor as a timid boss! And about twenty more!). It’s annoying that just as it appears Gervais was trying to stretch himself, pushing different buttons than he did on TV, he falls back into the same traps that nearly drowned the intermittently brilliant Extras, from the look-at-me celebrity cameos, the Woody Allenish verbal fumbling, and the reduction of every scene to exploiting the idea of a character too stupid to notice how racist, insulting, or homophobic what they just matter-of-factly uttered was. There’s even a number of fat and flat-nosed jokes at Gervais’ expense, though nothing as funny as David Bowie’s impromptu song on Extras (“Little fat man, chubby little loser…”).
It’s not that The Invention of Lying is a bad film, just very disappointing; there’s certainly nothing as incisive or brutally and uncomfortably funny as Gervais’ endless evisceration of his character in the second season of The Office. There’s also a logical inconsistency within the concept, that being that most of the world is pretty much the same, except for some goofy-looking street signs and all movies are dull, narrated documentaries. If all the ugly people are suicidal and no one will procreate with them, they’d eventually die out. Gervais could have been one of the few average-looking people left, and trying to work around that, as opposed to his insistence on turning his character into both a genius and a martyr. Seems like he couldn’t see past his flat nose.
*In an ironic twist, two of the major financiers of Capitalism: A Love Story, The Weinstein Company and Paramount Vantage have virtually disintegrated financially. The Weinstein Company was lucky to have the recent success of Inglourious Basterds to temporarily bail them out of a major hole, staving off immediate collection on large bank loans and Paramount Vantage no longer exists at all. Paramount has spent the last six months burning off the rest of their films with little to no marketing behind them (such as with The Marc Pease Experience).