Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Few comics have a sharper eye for human foibles and pretensions than Ricky Gervais. Grinning disarmingly, this bright Brit makes it his business to garner guffaws by blithely pricking balloons full of gaseous, self-serving lies. (Witness the original "The Office" and "Extras.") Who better to play a schlubby Everyman abroad in a world where dishonesty doesn't exist, especially after his surprisingly nuanced performance in last year's "Ghost Town"?
In addition to starring in "The Invention of Lying," Gervais wrote and directed this hybrid romantic comedy / satire (with first-timer Matthew Robinson), so it's his baby, for good or ill. Truth be told, "Lying" isn't really a movie, but something closer to a sometimes engaging TV sitcom or a series of discrete comedic blackouts. Still, even with a story line that unreels by fits and starts, "Lying" might have nailed the funny if it hadn't played safe. With subject matter so ripe for sharp satire, why, with few exceptions, does Gervais choose to gum rather than really sink his teeth into his targets?
In the alternate reality of Mark Bellison (Gervais), not only is lying unknown, but everyone seems to be compelled to say whatever's on his or her mind, however hurtful or inappropriate. Thus, nerdy waiters vouchsafe the news that they are embarrassed to be representing such unprepossessing restaurants, and a lovely lady (Jennifer Garner) feels free, after first look, to inform Mark that he's such a disappointment as a date that any follow-up get-togethers are pretty much out of the question. For a while, such blurts of brutal honesty generate shocked giggles.
In this world, nobody takes offense at Tourette's-like truth-telling. Or seems bored to tears by movies that consist of pretentious twits like Nathan Goldfrappe (Christopher Guest) sitting in an easy chair reading literal-minded scripts drawn from history. Or wonders if a senior center sign "Sad Place for Hopeless Old People" might be a tad insensitive, even if accurate. Without fictions, artifice and connotation to jazz up the way things are, folks are dull, slow, depressed. Faces never light up or go dark in rage. And who needs to know how to "read" the nuances of human behavior, which often grow out of the play between who we are and who we wish to be. Art, advertising, politics and religion can't find purchase in such barren ground.
When sad-sack Mark loses the girl, gets fired and goes broke, a rogue synapse fires in his brain, inspiring him to utter "what isn't" -- the first-ever lie. Gervais' pudgy physog fairly radiates small-boy delight as he explores the positive results of confabulation, from convincing a gorgeous blonde to have end-of-the-world sex to winning big-time at a casino. Turns out kindness also depends on sugarcoating reality. And before long our hero is inventing heaven and a caring "man in the sky" to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan).
This is tricky territory. Mainstream movies rarely have the cojones to risk controversy and box-office drear when it comes to religion. (Think of Kevin Smith's benign "Dogma," badmouthed and boycotted by angry believers.) So you gotta give props (and laughs) to Gervais when his Great Prevaricator feeds a crowd his improvised, feel-good mythology, brandishing pizza-box commandments like Charlton Heston's Moses. Hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the nit-picking, Jesuitical logic his followers apply to his haphazard doctrine. Truth is, their questions are legitimate; and Gervais, satirist and atheist, is skewering, ever so gently, the nonsense and contradictions inherent in religious dogma.
Ultimately, saccharine romantic comedy upstages nasty satire in "The Invention of Lying." Garner's Anna McDoogles, a super-pragmatic kewpie doll, initially writes Bellison off as "a chubby little loser, genetically unsuitable" for someone like her. (Rob Lowe, sporting an unpleasantly piscine smile, plays the suitable specimen.) Cheerfully cruel, the object of Bellison's desire seems more prom-queen android than human. Garner mugs too much, screwing her face up in little-girl puzzlement as her unsuitable suitor keeps chipping away at her skewed reality. Occasionally, even as Anna begins to see through appearances, you glimpse enough of the feeling woman within the caricature to wish for more of the authentic Garner. The tease (whether this genetically incompatible pair will ever get together) goes on far too long, artificially sustained beyond the point of caring.
The cast of "The Invention of Lying" (not to mention several surprise cameos) adds up to an embarrassment of comedic riches: Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, John Hodgman, Jason Bateman, Nathan Corddry. But like the splendid dramatic actress Flanagan (Mark's mom), these funnymen and women are displayed for brief and superficial amusement, more props than characters. That leaves Gervais, the witty, talented heart of this enterprise. "Lying" almost entirely arranges itself around Gervais' cunning charm, his ability to absorb emotional body blows, milk a laugh, then turn the wound into wisdom and character. (Sometimes there's a hint of Buster Keaton in Gervais' hangdog expressions, though the Brit's impish self-awareness is all his own.) There's no doubting that this is one comic who can really act. But maybe Gervais should leave the directing to someone who knows how to tell funny stories on film, if such a talent can be found these days.Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.