The Invention of Lying

In a parallel world where everybody tells the truth, Ricky Gervais's everyman invents falsehood, turning his nobody into a somebody, and giving him a shot at Pouting Sexy-Woman Jennifer Garner. But when he tells a lie to ease his dying mum's mind, he inadvertently invents religion (yawn), investing him with a frightening power and attracting attention from all four corners of the globe. What begins as a mildly entertaining high-concept comedy (with Woody Allen-ish credits) turns into an incredibly heavy-handed atheist satire that operates at the heady intellectual and theological level of an 11-year-old skim-reading Philosophy for Beginners. I've found before that Gervais is fine at ridiculing Karl Pilkington for being stupid, but when he's asked straightforward questions about his own beliefs, he flounders, ums, ahs, and ultimately says something either facile or vague and non-committal, before changing the subject and calling somebody a cunt. Now you can enjoy that sensation at feature-length!

I'm a church-going Irish Catholic, but I've seen and heard some invigorating and impressive take-downs of religion in the past (Richard Herring's 2010-11 show was an extremely passionate and sure-footed examination of his atheism, and accompanying obsession with Jesus, while Maggie Holland's A Proper Sort of Gardener expertly condensed uncertainties about the God of the Old Testament into four tear-jerking minutes). Watching Gervais outline his embarrassingly simplistic views here takes his cringe-comedy to new levels, as if his legendary set at the Diana memorial gig had gone on for three days. And his basic "truthful world" concept, while neat in theory, is frankly bollocks in execution. In his podcasts series, I remember Gervais having a go at Pilkington for saying that he thinks in full sentences. But that's exactly what Gervais' characters do here. It's not that they can't lie, it's that they speak in one-line précis of their most secret or embarrassing thoughts, which doesn't make any sense. That's not to say that the set-up doesn't inspire some clever sight gags or smart sketches (the Coke advert is good), but it's confused beyond belief, even before attempting to meld the tedious-message-movie to the unconvincing-rom-com, with its unbearablly twee recurring mantra of "fat kids with snub noses". There's also a sense that Gervais and Robinson have gnawed off more than they can chew (or at least more than they have time to script), epitomised by a reliance on dire musical montage that removes the need to write dialogue for what you might think were important scenes, like our hero using his new powers to do good. He seems to be lying to people, and they seem to be smiling; beyond that, I've no idea what's going on. That poverty of invention extends to the Lecture Films sub-plot, in which Gervais' screenwriter devises an outlandish new work supposedly based on a true story. A decent idea, but the result is bafflingly unfunny.

Perhaps the problem is that while Stephen Merchant appears in the film's only laugh-out-loud scene, he wasn't around to co-write this one. On the podcasts, he would almost always alight on the funniest way of exploring or expanding a subject, and exhibited impressive editing skills (the conventional wisdom is that great comedy double-acts usually consist of an innovator and an editor; I'd argue that Merchant is both, and should maybe go it alone), while Gervais would contribute relatively little, largely whooping, screeching with laughter or being excessively rude to Pilkington in a jokey way that's nevertheless uncomfortable to listen to. I don't actually dislike Gervais, or his work, as a rule: The Office was excellent, Extras was quite good in places, and Ghost Town - an earlier high-concept affair to which The Invention of Lying bears some similarity - worked rather well. And I actually think he plays the emotional scenes here pretty effectively. But I do think that his brand of comedy is very limited and that his rarefied position means that there's simply no-one there to tell him when he's being boring, trivial and wearyingly samey, wasting a stellar comic cast, or delivering his tiresome point with the delicacy and quiet finesse of a wrecking ball. It's a bit like Idiocracy, if Idiocracy was shit.

Rick liked this review