November Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 15 years ago

The word ‘genius’ is bandied about rather carelessly these days but Ricky Gervais fits the profile. He radically changed television comedy with The Office, abandoning the traditional three-camera set up and laugh track for an uncomfortable workplace show that relied on character more than gags. His follow-up Extras, a pointed satire on the double-edged sword that is celebrity, was not as revolutionary but equally funny.

The Invention of Lying is Gervais’ first attempt at directing and writing a feature-length film. He is also the protagonist (control freak anyone?). Given his cachet in Hollywood, it isn’t surprising that Gervais has managed to assemble some of the finest comedic talent around: Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest Louis CK and Jeffrey Tambor all make appearances in the film.

The premise of the film is Gervais at his ingenious best. A struggling screenwriter, Gervais lives in a world in which lying does not exist. Thus when he asks the gorgeous Garner out, she sends him an email curtly informing him that she is way out of his league. A retirement community is known as A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People and the only ads Coke bothers with are those trumpeting how famous it is. Apparently, the reason lies haven’t existed is because no one thought to do so. Until Gervais, ever the contrarian, does so one morning to get out of paying rent.

Unlike the Jim Carrey vehicle Liar Liar, which had the same plot as The Invention of Lying, but in reverse, this movie has a serious point to make. The atheist Gervais wants to show how desperate people construct fictions to make themselves feel better about their sorry state. For him, the movie is an allegory of religion which is further emphasised when Gervais, now able to tell nothing but lies, comforts his dying mother with stories of how the Big Man in the Sky will welcome her in heaven.

For two-thirds of its running time, The Invention of Lying is a biting satire on organised religion. And then it all falls apart. Jettisoning its magnificent but tragically underused cast, the film focuses only on Gervais and Garner, the most unlikely onscreen pairing since Woody Allen decided to make his characters irresistible to whichever young Hollywood actress he fancied at the time. The theme of the film is abandoned and Gervais gives up lying to try and fullfill his unrequited love. Were anyone other than Gervais responsible for the film, the ending would be very predictable. But while we wait for the comedic master to pull one final trick and salvage the movie, it ends in a manner that is so upbeat it would depress every cynic who thought Gervais was one of them.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.