Would the world be a better place if people always told the truth? Back in 1666, French playwright Molière answered this question in his scathing comedy The Misanthrope, drawing fire from critics as illustrious as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But no one has made a true spiritual sequel to The Misanthrope … until now.
While he may not belong in the same league as Molière, Ricky Gervais was the man to do it. His TV creations, the original “The Office” and the show-biz satire “Extras,” delve into human greed, vanity and general ugliness with comic relish. Not for him the goofy sweetness and upbeat endings of Hollywood comedies. So it’s no surprise that, when Gervais imagines a world in which only one man can lie (the reverse of Molière’s), he does so with a cynicism that would have made the urbane Frenchman nod.
Gervais, who cowrote and codirected with Matthew Robinson, plays the Everyman protagonist Mark Bellison. Like everyone in this alternate reality, he speaks the literal truth without prompting and assumes others do the same. A world with no bullshit detectors or internal censors offers plenty of verbal and sight gags, from the woman cooing “Your baby is sooo ugly” to the blunt signage (“A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People”) and advertising taglines (“Coke. It’s Very Famous.”).
Gervais keeps us so busy laughing in these early scenes that it may take a while to realize how dark his vision is: A world without lying isn’t just boring; it’s devoid of possibility. Mark’s love interest, Anna (Jennifer Garner), is a gorgeous woman who cares about two things: acquiring wealth and a mate who’s not a “loser” with whom to pass on her good genes. Since Mark is “fat and snub-nosed,” she tells him matter-of-factly, he’s out of the running. Mark’s neighbor (Jonah Hill), who’s even fatter, spends his evenings sampling suicide methods. In a world of cold genetic determinism, he has no prospects and no illusions to keep him going.
Until … to get himself out of a tight spot, Mark tells a lie. The only person on Earth who can comprehend the notion of falsehood, soon he’s fabricating up a storm, encouraged by hearers who, child-like, believe every word. He writes the world’s first fiction, then concocts its first religion.
When Mark becomes a prophet, taxed with explaining the complexities of a deity and an afterlife that are basically whoppers, it’s clear why some critics have denounced The Invention of Lying as atheist propaganda. They’re being over-literal, like the film’s characters: While Gervais does treat religion as fiction, he suggests that such tall tales make life worth living. Gods may be frauds, in short, but the world is bleak without them.
What bogs the movie down is its doomed attempt to cross this provocative vision with a romantic comedy. In the movie’s last half-hour, the supporting players — who include Tina Fey, Louis C.K. and Christopher Guest — retreat so Gervais can explore the birth of another fiction: love. Problem is, he and Garner have zero chemistry, and it’s not a matter of her being “out of his league,” as Anna constantly reminds Mark. They just don’t click.
Like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, a similarly pessimistic satire, The Invention of Lying is too weird to draw crowds and too flawed to win awards. But I suspect it will be rented often enough to start thousands of living-room debates over whether we can, in fact, handle the truth.