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Movie Review

The Invention of Lying

‘Lying’ hits a nerve, then loses it

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais in “The Invention of Lying,’’ set in an alternate Earth where everyone tells the truth. Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais in “The Invention of Lying,’’ set in an alternate Earth where everyone tells the truth. (Warner Brothers)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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With “The Invention of Lying,’’ the British comic actor Ricky Gervais has come up with a wickedly funny idea for a movie - and then purged the wickedness right out of it. A sharp-edged, cameo-studded fantasy set in an alternate Earth where everyone tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the film explores the power of one little lie that leads to other, bigger lies that ultimately lead to fabricating an entire system of religious belief.

That’s right: “Invention’’ is a mainstream movie that posits God as man’s most desperately inspired leap of imagination. Cheeky monkey. With such big game in their sights, though, the filmmakers shift their aim and instead bag a sweet but toothless romantic comedy, the kind we’ve seen many, many times before. “The Invention of Lying’’ is a disappointment, then: Not the Ricky Gervais breakthrough that he and we deserve, but merely another promising holding maneuver.

That said, there are laughs here, dodging amateurish filmmaking and story construction while managing to hit their targets. Gervais shares scripting and directing credit with writer-comedian Matthew Robinson, and their setup is a good one: What if the imagination required to deviate from the facts had never evolved? And what would happen if one average schmo figured out the benefits of saying something that wasn’t true?

Everyone would believe him, of course; they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Mark Bellison (Gervais) comes up with his first whopper - a minor bit of larceny - and both he and the movie dance with delight at the possibilities. Sex with beautiful women? As long as you tell them the world will end right now. Free money, cars, houses? Provided you can construct the right lie, it’s all yours.

What lies can’t buy is love, since it doesn’t actually exist in this world. Mark is sweet for a leggy ditz named Anna (Jennifer Garner), who thinks he’s rather nice but won’t risk the genetic possibility of kids who might look like him. (She’d rather date Mark’s rival, a preening sleaze played by Rob Lowe.)

It’s a lie told to benefit someone else that gets the hero into his hottest water: Mark calms his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) with a vision of a place up above among those she loves and, presto, he has invented Heaven. The media camps out on his door, demanding to know what else he knows, and, frazzled, he comes up with a Big Man in the Sky. And they believe that.

God knows we could use a good religious satire, but “The Invention of Lying’’ isn’t it. The film delightfully explores what pop culture would look like without its necessary untruths: Movies consists of lectures about historical events (Mark, a screenwriter by profession, is stuck with the Black Plague) and advertisements run along the lines of “Pepsi: When They Don’t Have Coke.’’ Retirement homes are called “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.’’

Once Mark uncorks his revelations, though, the movie loses its nerve. “The Invention of Lying’’ feels small-scale in more ways than one: The budget isn’t there for the necessary epic vision (although Lowell and the other Massachusetts locations look great), the editing stutters and starts, and the hero spends too much effort chasing a woman who isn’t worth his or our time. In one scene, Mark tells Anna all the beautiful things he sees within her, and the problem is that we don’t see them. Like everyone else in this fact-obsessed world, Anna’s actually pretty unpleasant.

“The Invention of Romance’’? That might have made a more honest title. The movie stumbles in that direction when it’s not halfheartedly skewering faith or dumping on Mark for being a “fat, snub-nosed loser.’’ Methinks Gervais protests far too much with such Chaplinesque bids for pathos. Anyone who can call on Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, and Christopher Guest for one-shot appearances is no loser. And that’s the truth.

Related

Ricky Gervais

He doesn't want to be everyone's funnyman

Ricky Gervais talks to Matthew Gilbert about his new movie, "The Invention of Lying," filmed in Andover, which he stars in, co-wrote, and co-directed.

THE INVENTION OF LYING Written and directed by: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (language including some sexual material and a drug reference)

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