The essence of dark comedy entails laughing at things that would otherwise make you cry. If it weren’t so consistently funny throughout its first two acts, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s ill-fated 2009 feature-film co-directorial debut The Invention Of Lying, the second entry in “British cult TV-comedy star month” here at My Year Of Flops, would be almost unbearably sad. As it is, the film is just bearably sad.
One of the most promising, inspired, and disappointing comedies of recent years, The Invention Of Lying takes place in an alternate universe devoid of lies, evasions, half-truths, spin, and everything else that allows us to sleep through the night. In this bleak realm, everyone simply blurts out whatever comes to mind, regardless of how it affects other people. The subtle massaging of truth is the cornerstone of any functioning civilization, so the world of Lying is a grey, dreary realm, devoid of the self-delusion that makes life bearable.
It’s a world where euphemisms are replaced by blunt honesty. A nursing home, for example, is openly labeled “A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People,” and its doomed, sad-eyed denizens shout things like “You look like my dead son” and “Each day is worse than the last” to Gervais’ protagonist when he comes to visit his dying mother.
Gervais lurches through this universe of infinite sadness with the wounded, self-defeating body language of someone forever bracing himself for the next humiliation. He’s a screenwriter for Lecture Films, and since fiction doesn’t exist, he’s reduced to writing dry academic lectures about historical events for achingly dull documentaries. As the film opens, Gervais has hit the latest in a series of lows. He’s on the verge of being fired after boss Jeffrey Tambor complains that he found Gervais’ last script depressing, perhaps because it was about the Black Plague. Assistant Tina Fey broadcasts rather than hides her contempt for her boss, as does Gervais’ impossibly handsome fellow screenwriter Rob Lowe.
Things aren’t going any better for him on the romantic front. In this clip, Gervais prepares to go on a date with Jennifer Garner, a dynamic young woman who doesn’t feel the need to even pretend she finds Gervais attractive or suitable partner material. In his sad little apartment complex, Gervais isn’t even able to derive any solace from the knowledge that suicidal neighbor Jonah Hill is more miserable than him. Here’s what small talk looks like in a world where “I’m doing fine, how about you?” has been replaced by unblinking candor:
Then one day at the bank, Gervais makes a discovery that will change his life: He doesn’t always have to tell the truth. In fact, life is much brighter if he doesn’t. And since people in this universe have no frame of reference for anything other than honesty, no one thinks to doubt him. So if Gervais tells a sexy stranger that horrible things will happen if she doesn’t have sex with him, her only question is whether they should have sex right there in the street, or abscond to a nearby hotel.
While trying to comfort his dying mother at A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People, Gervais accidentally invents religion when he tells his despondent mother that she’s headed for a mansion in the sky where she’ll be reunited with everyone she’s ever loved, and where she’ll be young, free, and happy forever. The scene is absolutely heartbreaking, as Gervais, unsuccessfully fighting back tears, spins the most fantastic tale he can imagine in an attempt to ease the pain of his mother’s final few moments on earth.
Lying sneakily suggests that the very idea of a supreme deity—the “Man In The Sky” concept is vague enough to parallel countless religious traditions—is nothing more than a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about the unknowable nature of death and the afterlife, to impose order, reason, and justice on a system we cannot begin to understand.
Gervais and Robinson’s film asks us to imagine what the concept of God and religion would look like to people who’ve never experienced either. How would they be able to reconcile the seemingly antithetical notions of an infinitely kind and generous deity with the traumas and tragedies that befall humanity everyday? As this clip illustrates, it isn’t easy.
Like Luke Wilson in Idiocracy, a film The Invention Of Lying sometimes resembles, Gervais’ character goes from zero to prophet/seer/sage because he possesses something no one else does. In Idiocracy, that’s intelligence. Here, it’s the ability to lie. We treasure our illusions: We need to believe that that promotion is right around the corner, our diets will work, and we’ll find the perfect partner if we don’t give up and keep believing in ourselves. They’re what keep us going and keep the darkness at bay. By giving this alternate universe the concept of The Man In The Sky, Gervais gives it hope. When Hill complains that there’s no reason to keep on living, Gervais tells him that things will get better. Of course they probably won’t, but the mere idea that tomorrow might be better than today or yesterday is enough to reawaken Hill’s lust for life, or at least his commitment to killing himself slowly with alcohol and TV instead of going the more direct route.
Gervais and co-writer/co-director Matthew Robinson generate a lot of big laughs out of the cast’s deadpan under-reactions to preposterous situations, like this clip where Gervais’ best friend Louis C.K. and bartender Philip Seymour Hoffman (one of a slew of big-name cameos) discover that the seemingly mild-mannered man before them is a black pirate who invented the bicycle.
The first-time directors give the film an intentionally beige, bland look in keeping with a universe devoid of false promises and meaningless flash. This might make sense conceptually, but when coupled with the intentionally flat line-readings of the ridiculously talented cast, it serves to sap the film of energy and momentum. It’s as if Gervais and his collaborators were so certain of their script, premise, and cast, they felt they could stick the whole shebang in the stylistic equivalent of a brown paper bag and still come away with a winner. They weren’t entirely wrong. In spite of its sleepy pacing and bland visual sensibility, Lying is alternately hilarious, quietly profound, and beautifully bittersweet. Oh, and also incredibly aggravating.
Now that I’ve spent 1,100 words praising The Invention Of Lying, I’ll get around to discussing the massive flaw that nearly kills the film. In the hopes of somehow reaching a big mainstream audience with their dark comedy about how religion and civilization are poisonous institutions built upon a foundation of deceit, the filmmakers give Gervais a love interest in Garner.
It’s as if a scathing social satire like Dr. Strangelove or Life Of Brian decided to give its third act over to She’s Out Of My League. Actually, that isn’t fair to She’s Out Of My League, since Lying’s third act is more like She’s Out Of My League by way of Josef Mengele. Garner isn’t merely a detestable human being even by the lenient standards of the film’s alternate universe. She also apparently wants to breed a master race of skinny, attractive people by combining her excellent genetic material with a similarly desirable partner: Lowe, Gervais’ arch-nemesis, and the antithesis of everything he stands for.
The first time Garner expresses her aversion to creating a brood of pug-nosed, chubby slobs with Gervais, it’s mildly amusing. By the second and third time she voices it, she’s completely destroyed any sympathy the audience might have for her. She seems not simply shallow and superficial, but mean and obsessive.
In The Office and Extras, Gervais never asked for the audience’s sympathy. He was thrillingly willing to play characters with almost no redeeming facets—people incapable of giving and receiving love, people who pushed away the few souls who tried to get close to them. In a comedy realm full of sad clowns who just want to be loved, Gervais was refreshingly willing to play unloveable bastards who didn’t get the girl.
Yet the disastrous final third of Lying shamelessly embraces the maudlin sentimentality Gervais’ unimpeachable television oeuvre has purposefully avoided. It’s filled with punishingly sincere moments, like Garner illustrating her spiritual growth by consoling a fat kid at a playground after he’s beaten up by bullies. In that moment, Garner discovers that fat people aren’t universally worthless sacks of shit after all.
I am not averse to self-deprecation. In fact, I’m a big fan/practitioner. But there’s a point where it goes too far and veers into self-laceration, self-pity, and even a warped sort of self-aggrandizement. After all, making constant jokes about your shortcomings assumes that your audience knows and cares enough about your sensibility and persona to find humor in your foibles. Gervais crosses that line here. He isn’t being self-effacing, finding humor in his pudginess and pug nose, so much as he’s sitting in a dark corner, morosely eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and moaning about how no one will ever truly love him because he’s fat and ugly.
Early in the film, Gervais’ boss tells him, “At Lecture Films, we just want to take the big-name readers of the day and have them read the stories people know and love.” Gervais and his collaborators unwisely took that advice to heart. Instead of creating a scathing, original religious and philosophical satire, they hedged their bets by giving audiences a story they supposedly already know and love: the sad-sack nebbish who overcomes his fears and anxieties and gets the beautiful girl.
Yet in spite of its third-act travails and a romantic-comedy subplot that nearly serves as its Achilles’ heel, I think The Invention Of Lying is eminently worthy of critical rehabilitation, perhaps the primary criteria of a Secret Success. I still have faith in Gervais’ bottomless potential as a writer, director, and star of major motion pictures, if not as a romantic leading man.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success