Given a choice between living in a world where lies don't exist or one where deception is commonplace, I'll take the one where the truth is optional -- not because I believe dishonesty is a virtue, but because we get the good movies. In The Invention of Lying, co-writer/director and star Ricky Gervais plays a portly, snub-nosed screenwriter living in a world where the very notion of telling a lie is unfathomable. It's a sly comment on Hollywood that in this world, movies are nothing more than filmed lectures -- history lessons read by a stuffy man sitting in a fancy chair (imagine the introduction to Masterpiece Theatre spread out over two hours), with not a single embellishment or pesky stylistic flourish to get in the way of the riveting historical facts.
This incisive gag is but one of many that make The Invention of Lying a high-concept romantic comedy that really stands apart from the pack. It's not just the situation that makes the film work, but the way that co-writer/directors Gervais and Matthew Robinson present us with a inverse caricature of contemporary society as well. By using the basic conceit as a springboard to explore why we make the decisions that we do, they deliver a shrewd comedy that's airy and entertaining, yet far from vacuous -- and can actually be enjoyed on a few different levels. There's plenty to chew on philosophically if you choose to follow Gervais into the rabbit hole of religious humor that drives the latter part of the story, but even if you don't feel like digging so deep, the basic idea still works wonderfully as a playful jab at our penchant for stretching the truth -- occasionally for reasons we ourselves don't even seem to understand.
The story opens to find Lecture Films screenwriter Mark Bellison (Gervais) living in a world where lies don't exist, and about to join the ranks of the unemployed. He's looked down upon by his secretary and his co-workers -- including the impossibly handsome, nauseatingly vain fellow screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) -- and about to get his already-weeping heart stomped into the dirt by the radiantly gorgeous Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), who agrees to join him on a date despite being put off by his dumpy looks. Then, in a moment of desperation, Mark inexplicably makes up the world's very first lie -- though he isn't quite aware of what it is or why he did it. Before long, Mark has figured out a way to turn lies into wealth and fame, though it all threatens to come crashing down after word gets out that he knows a secret so profound it could alter the course of human history. But even with the world hanging on Mark's every word, he still has trouble convincing Anna that he's the guy for her.
At its core, The Invention of Lying is a hilarious critique of our constant search for something better. Anna ponders choosing Brad over Mark in the desire for a genetic match that will result in a beautiful family, Mark longs for the sprawling mansion that will validate his success, and despite having all of the fame and success a guy could ever hope for, even Brad strives to one-up Mark by stealing away Anna. But what happens when fate smiles down on us and we actually get these things -- does it really improve the standard of our lives in any significant way? Those are, of course, some pretty heady ideas to package in a sugary-sweet shell, but the fact that such an outwardly benign comedy ultimately sets its sights on religion may sour the flavor for reverent viewers who see faith as a topic not to be joked about. Still, it's hard not to laugh as Mark addresses the world with a series of decrees mounted on a pair of pizza boxes, and truth be told, it's a bit of a relief to see someone willing to find humor in a subject that has grown increasingly solemn and divisive over the last few decades.
In addition to being driven by a fun, original idea that remains fresh even after the novelty has dissipated, The Invention of Lying also benefits from the efforts of an enormously talented cast. Standing at the center of the story like a clever Lou Costello after histrionics-removal surgery, Gervais manages the unique feat of retaining audience goodwill even after deceiving the entire planet. Meanwhile, antagonist Lowe seems to have his top lip surgically lengthened for comedic effect while delivering outrageously egotistical dialogue without a hint of irony, and -- miracle of miracles -- Gervais and Robinson have somehow managed to elicit a nuanced performance from Jonah Hill that yields not so much as a single shouted line. It's a pleasant change of pace to see the overbearing loudmouth tone it down a notch or ten, and a promising indicator that Hill actually possesses some range as an actor, given the right direction. Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, and Martin Starr also get some solid laughs, even if the latter four contribute what essentially amount to glorified cameos.
In a time when fables have fallen out of fashion, Gervais and company have crafted an imaginative, cautionary yarn that's playfully egregious and slyly subversive; it's got a distinctive bite, but spares us the venom. Stories of characters who compromise their integrity in search of fame are a dime a dozen, but by creating a world where honesty is compulsive, Gervais and Robinson offer acute insight into the more peculiar facets of human nature while simultaneously taking a thinly veiled jab at the very system they're working within. That's quite an accomplishment for a comedy, much less a mainstream one released by a major Hollywood studio.