The Invention of Lying
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I loved this movie.
No, wait, I didn’t. I lied to you. Or maybe I’m lying right now, when I said I lied. Or maybe I didn’t even see the movie, and I lied twice already, trying to cover up. Or maybe—
The point is, you don’t really know yet what I thought of The Invention of Lying. More importantly, you know you don’t know. And why is this? Because we humans are prone to be deceitful, lying, falsehood-telling fibbers���and we know it.
We’ve been dutifully trained to treat what we hear with skepticism. And we know that however much we want to believe that someone’s telling us the truth—even if they’ve got a strong record for truth-telling in the past—there’s at least a possibility they’re lying.
But in the parallel universe Mark Bellison inhabits, there’s no such possibility. Because no one lies. No one, apparently, is capable of it.
Mark’s world is a place where fiction is unheard of. A place where blockbuster movies consist of readers narrating historically accurate screenplays. Advertising is a challenge ("Pepsi: When they don’t have Coke"), office relations are awkward ("I’ve loathed almost every minute I’ve worked for you," Mark’s secretary tells him). Blind dates present a special kind of nightmare.
"I don’t find you attractive," a woman named Anna tells Mark before their first evening out, adding that she has very low expectations for their time together. "But," she adds, "the thought of being alone the rest of my life scares me and my mother equally."
Anna ends up rejecting him. And that’s just the beginning of Mark’s travails. He also gets fired from his job as a screenwriter, and his landlord is set to evict him if he doesn’t cough up $800 rent. Mark knows good and well he only has $300 in his account.
But necessity is, as they say, the mother of, um, invention.
And so Mark galumphs to the bank to close out his account—enough money, he figures, to rent a truck to haul his stuff away. When he gets there, however, Mark learns the bank’s computers are down. How much do you want to withdraw? The teller chirps.
In that moment, the first lie is born. More tumble out of his dissembling mouth in short order, enabling Mark to keep his apartment, save his friend from a drunk-driving arrest and write the most exciting "historical" screenplay ever. And that’s just for starters. This film suggests that, in the country of truth tellers, a one-lied man is king.
Often when Mark offers up little white lies, his heart’s in the right place, and I guess we can give him a bit of credit for that. But, clearly, he’s at his best when he refuses to lie altogether. An example: Anna falls in love with him because he’s witty and compassionate and fun. But she refuses to get further involved with him because his genetics are all wrong for her and she worries that their resulting offspring would be fat and snub nosed. So she asks him, eyes filled with hope, "Does being rich and famous change your genetic material?" As much as he wants to have children with Anna, and as rich and famous as he is, Mark truthfully says no.
"I’ve been an atheist all my life," Ricky Gervais (who wrote, directed and starred in The Invention of Lying) told ShortList. "But I always knew that if my mum asked me when she was dying if there was a heaven, I’d say yes. I’d lie. … I think that’s how religion started—as a good lie."
And that, dear readers, is the axis upon which this movie rotates. The Invention of Lying is, at its core, a rumination on religious belief. And faith does not fare well.
Mark visits his mother on her deathbed, and she’s weeping over the fact that, in a few hours, she’ll simply cease to be. So Mark tells her that after she dies, she’ll go to her "favorite place in the whole world," live in a mansion and be reunited with everyone she’s known and loved who has also passed on. In this place, he says, there’s "no pain. Just love. Happiness."
This comforts her mother a great deal, and she slips into death with a smile on her face. But it turns out Mark’s story was overheard by doctors and nurses, who are blown away by this new truth. Soon, word gets out that Mark knows something revolutionary. Urged on by Anna, he writes what he considers the biggest whopper of his life: that there’s a "man in the sky" who manipulates our whole lives for good and ill and reserves a place where he lives for most people when they die. But bad people, who do three or more "bad" things during their lives, will go to a bad place.
Mimicking and mocking the Ten Commandments, Mark posts his revelations on the backside of two pizza boxes (which, incidentally, also give Pizza Hut prime product placement).
Mark becomes a de facto prophet (even looking like the stereotypical image of Jesus in a couple of scenes), and "man in the sky" talk pervades the rest of the film. People seem to be helped by his "revelation" at first, but Mark notices that some folks respond to it by checking out of life. His suicidal neighbor, for instance, decides to stop looking for someone to share his life with and instead bides his time until the man in the sky snaps him up and gives him his mansion. He also tries to speed time along by drinking copiously.
Near the end of the film, we see a chapel (labeled "a quiet place to think about the man in the sky") that features a huge mural of Mark holding his pizza boxes. The "priest" in charge appears to wear a small necklace bearing the same image.
But Mark is wracked with guilt over this lie. Sitting by his mother’s grave, he says, "I know you’re not up there in a mansion. You’re right here in the ground and I’m the only one who knows that." In the end, he tells Anna there is "no man in the sky."
There is no nudity in The Invention of Lying. And the film’s two protagonists don’t even kiss until the film’s almost over. But remember: This is world in which everyone is completely honest. That means conversations can get quite explicit when it comes to sexual matters.
When Mark first shows up at Anna’s apartment, for instance, she says, "You’re early. I was just masturbating." Mark eventually replies, "I hope this date ends in sex!" All the masturbation talk, he says, has aroused him.
As Mark hones his ability to use untruths to his advantage, his friends crudely suggest he use it to take advantage of women. Accordingly, he tells a woman passing him on the street, "The world’s going to end unless we have sex right now!" She panics, and the two flee to a hotel room, where Mark backs out of the deed before the woman’s done much more than remove her belt.
When Anna announces she’s going on a date with a hated rival, Mark tells her there’s a "rule" that people should not have sex before they’re married. A despondent Anna then gives Mark his birthday present—a coupon for "birthday sex" which is now unredeemable.
Some of Mark’s workmates call him an "obese homosexual," among other less printable terms.
Mark’s neighbor discusses suicide frequently. At one juncture, he says he’s been throwing up painkillers all night. (He didn’t take enough to kill himself.) At another point, he discusses the merits of suffocation. A police officer roughs up one of Mark’s friends after catching him driving under the influence.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word—directed, it should be noted, at the man in the sky. At least one s-word. Fleeting vulgarities include "b‑‑ch," "douche bag" and "fag."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Pizza Hut isn’t the only corporate participant in this film. Budweiser must’ve snagged a mammoth product-placement deal, because rarely do we see Mark or his friends without one. Mark drinks to excess. And Anna gets drunk on their first date. "Call me tomorrow if you still like me when you’re sober," Mark says hopefully. Elsewhere, a waiter tells Anna that he took a sip of her margarita.
Mark’s friend imbibes far too much at a bar, then hops behind the wheel and drives away. The police officer who stops him tells him it’s unlikely he’d be able to afford a bribe. But the officer admits that the bribes he does collect support his cocaine habit.
Other Negative Elements
The movie’s truth-telling characters engage in some despicable and callous behavior—most obviously by judging people by their outward appearances and labeling them "losers." Mark is the only one who doesn’t engage in this sort of behavior, which seems to suggest that telling the truth goes hand-in-hand with being judgmental and shallow, while lying somehow makes you kinder.
Mark’s friend throws up in the car. Someone announces that they’ve made a very productive trip to the toilet. A retirement home is named "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People." Mark essentially steals stacks of cash from a bank (which he gives to a homeless person) and robs a casino blind.
So, finally, here’s the truth: I didn’t like this movie. It was a frustrating, disturbing, deeply saddening experience.
And it was funny. Which makes it, in some ways, that much worse.
Comedy is, at its core, the process of deconstructing things to the point of absurdity. Everything we honor, treasure and love can, if picked apart, be made to sound ludicrous. Relationships provide rich sources of humor. Political systems seem tailor-made for mockery. In fact, complexity of any kind has the potential to inspire comedy and satire.
Religion, by its very nature, is complex stuff. You can spend a lifetime studying the Bible and still be unraveling new truths on your deathbed. It is full of the amazing, the wonderful, the perplexing, the paradoxical and the outrageous.
Which brings us back to our movie.
In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais shows himself to be both a gifted comedian and, in his words, a lifelong atheist—one who apparently has very little knowledge of what he seeks to skewer. He takes an infantile interpretation of spirituality—one that most of us leave behind for deeper truths by the age of 3 or 4—and deconstructs it to the point of imbecility.
To Gervais, religion is laughable. In turn, I find Gervais’ simplistic interpretation of religion laughable: laughably irrelevant to how most of us who believe actually interpret our faith and live our lives. Gervais simply has no interest in honestly engaging that which he mocks.
So is it worth watching? I’d be lying if I said yes.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ricky Gervais as Mark Bellison; Jennifer Garner as Anna McDoogles; Louis C.K. as Greg; Rob Lowe as Brad Kessler; Jonah Hill as Frank
Ricky Gervais ( ), Matthew Robinson ( )
October 2, 2009
January 19, 2010