[Screen It]


(2009) (Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner) (PG-13)

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Comedy: In a world where no form of lying exists, be that fibs, flattery or even fiction, a recently fired screenwriter unexpectedly develops the ability to lie and uses that to his advantage, but must then deal with the repercussions of everyone else accepting what he says at face value.
Screenwriter Mark Bellison (RICKY GERVAIS) lives in a world where no one lies. That's not a conscious decision, it's just that lying in any form, be that fibs, deceit, flattery or even fiction, simply doesn't exist. As a result, Mark's work for Lecture Films is penning factual scripts about historical events -- his covering the 14th century -- where the resultant movie simply features a person reading the script on camera.

Yet, his boss, Anthony (JEFFREY TAMBOR), isn't happy with his work, his personal assistant, Shelley (TINA FEY), hates working for him, and his work rival, Brad Kessler (ROB LOWE), thinks little of him. And since no lies exist, they simply state their feelings about him without any sort of social filters. It short, it's a brutally honest world.

The same holds true for Mark's personal life, when his best friend, Greg (LOUIS C.K.), sets him up on a date with Anna McDoogles (JENNIFER GARNER), but she immediately informs him that he's not anywhere near her type and no future together is possible since she wouldn't want fat kids with snub noses.

Things then go from bad to worse when Anthony fires Mark and his landlord gives him one day before evicting him. Desperate, Mark goes to the bank to withdraw what little money he has, but then something interesting occurs. With the bank's computer system down and unable to indicate his balance, something snaps in Mark's brain and he suddenly has the ability to lie.

Since everyone believes everything that's said at face value, Mark gets enough money to pay off his rent, and decides he can use his power not only to impress Anna, but also stop his neighbor, Frank (JONAH HILL), from having suicidal thoughts, and also help his ailing mother, Martha (FIONNULA FLANAGAN), die with the belief that there's an afterlife.

When others overhear that, Mark ends up becoming something of a prophet, making up a story about a "man in the sky" who controls everything, including choosing where one goes after death. From that point on, Mark must deal with the repercussions of his lies about that as well as his desire to win over Anna despite her honest if callous objections to his genetic makeup.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Does anyone remember when they first lied and what that was about? If anyone replies yes, they're probably lying (ba-dump-bump), as such behavior usually starts at a very young age. I have no idea if it's learned or an innate attribute like greed (stemming from self-preservation) or lust (continuing the species), and I can't dredge up memories of my initial one, but I clearly recall the first time getting caught telling one.

Having been instructed to bike down to the neighbor's house and inform my sister it was time to come home, I encountered some older boys there and, not wanting to be picked on, turned around, pedaled home, and informed my mom that I delivered the message. When my sister eventually returned home, my prevarication was exposed and the punishment followed.

My lie was to cover the embarrassment of being afraid of the likely bullying, and others of varying sizes followed in the intervening years, just like most everyone else who has or continues to tell them for any number of reasons. They're not good, but some are worse (under oath in court, for instance) than others (such as telling someone they don't look fat in their current attire).

Imagine, however, a world in which no form of lying exists, be that as deceit, fibs, flattering others or even the production of artistic fiction. That's the fun premise of "The Invention of Lying," a comedy from the satiric mind of Ricky Gervais who co-wrote and co-directed this flick with Matthew Robinson.

In this Twilight Zone type alternate reality, people have no knowledge of any sort of lies and thus say exactly what's on their minds. That leads to a fun introductory section in the film where we see exactly how others view our lovelorn and downtrodden protagonist (Gervais), both at work -- where his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) thinks he isn't any good, his personal assistant (Tina Fey) loathes working for him, and his rival (Rob Lowe) constantly belittles him -- and on a blind date where the object of his desire (Jennifer Garner) makes him wait while she finishes pleasuring herself before telling him point blank that his genetics wouldn't be any good for her future children.

The lack of social filters is an amusing storytelling gambit, and the filmmakers get decent mileage out of the brutal honesty, whether that be from the above, various miscellaneous people going about their daily lives, or even advertisements and advertisers who admit exactly what their products are and why consumers should buy them.

As the title obviously suggests, lying is introduced into this frank world, and the laughs then continue as the protagonist gets away with murder (okay, not literal, but figurative) as everyone takes his word as the truth. An amusing bit regards him testing that realization with his best friend (Louis C.K.) and a bartender (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of many funny cameos) by constantly changing his story about himself, and them instantly following suit in believing everything he says.

It's all "high concept" (Hollywoodspeak for an imaginative, but simply stated premise that everyone can instantly understand), and one could easily see the likes of Jim Carrey in this sort of role (after all, he was in "Yes Man" recently where his character had to say yes to everything). Rather than operating on that fine line between being funny to some and obnoxious and over-exaggerated to others, Gervais underplays the part quite well, thus making his character more approachable and agreeable to the masses.

That is, of course, except for those who won't like where the film heads in its second half, which is into religious satire. Without explicitly naming any of them, the film ends up poking fun at the afterlife, "the man up in the sky," the Ten Commandments (with pizza boxes standing in for stone tablets) and even Jesus himself.

Some may be offended or put off by that, but much of it's done in a Monty Python sort of fashion (especially with Gervais' character having to put up with endless questions about how all of that works -- since it's a new concept for everyone), and actually proves that religion is a good thing in that it comforts and assures its followers, even if the film's message is that none of it's true.

Regardless of that direction in which the film heads, it generally loses some steam in the second half as things turn more conventional (the protagonist realizing the repercussions of his lies and his love interest finally seeing the error of her thinking), compared to the far funnier and more entertaining first half when this imaginative world and the sudden change in it are first introduced and explored.

It doesn't help that viewers may have a hard time rooting for Mark to win over Anna as she comes off too much as preoccupied solely with finding a good genetic mate and thus is superficial toward the protagonist based on his looks alone. That leads to a shortchanged chemistry between them and thus lessens the viewer's emotional involvement and engagement with them.

My former aspiring screenwriter self also would have liked to have seen the story go in the direction of lies spreading among the populace like some contagion, and then feature the public, media and/or government response to that outbreak where things would never be the same once the cat, Genie or your choice of metaphors was out of the proverbial bag, bottle or what have you.

Even so, the overall film is entertaining enough to earn a recommendation. With a few tweaks here and there, it could have been a brilliant comedy and satire. As it stands, it's still fairly entertaining (that's no lie Mom) and thus "The Invention of Lying" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 29, 2009 / Posted October 2, 2009

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