In The Invention Of Lying, Ricky Gervais (creator and star of Extras and the original version of The Office) lives in a world free of fabrication, fiction, exaggeration, and every other form of untruth. It drowns in beige and gray but comes by its oppressive dullness honestly. Gervais plays a struggling screenwriter at Lecture Films laboring to produce the only kind of movie his world knows: true stories read directly to the camera without ornamentation of any kind. (Well, some of the lecturers do like some flowers to sit on the table next to them.) Stuck writing about a 14th century that has no Dante or Chaucer or Great Schism—because God hasn’t found a way into this world of surety—he’s left only with stories of the Black Plague, which no one really wants to hear. His attempt to date a woman way out of his league (Jennifer Garner) doesn’t go well either, confirmed the next day when she sends him an e-mail emphasizing the fact that she’s way out of his league. Then, one day when he comes up short on rent, Gervais tells his world’s first lie and changes it forever.
Gervais and co-writer/co-director Matthew Robinson seldom settle for easy laughs in portraying a world of absolute truthfulness from its advertising (“Coke: It’s very famous”) to its institutions, as when Gervais visits his mother at A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People. The film doesn’t traffic in drollery for its own sake. Between laughs, Lying uses its skewed reality to comment on our own need to create useful fictions to wallpaper over the abyss. (In a telling detail, Rob Lowe’s handsome, aggressive, unreflective alpha male is the only character satisfied with his lot.) Matching humor with ambition, it takes on an even bigger topic when Gervais, unable to watch his dying mother suffer, tells her about the Big Man In The Sky and the happy place awaiting her while happily aghast onlookers beg him for more details on this great news.
Then, after touching on the ways religion brings out humanity’s best and worst instincts, the film blinks. On the verge of becoming a modern-dress Life Of Brian, it instead settles for My Alternate Universe Best Friend’s Wedding in a final act given over to Gervais’ attempts to win Garner’s heart without telling a lie. Lying remains sweetly pleasant but threatens to become as bland as the world in which it’s set, and previously took such pleasure in exploring. But maybe, in the spirit of the film, it’s best to look past the flaws of those later scenes and concentrate on the meaningful material that precedes them and the great film that might have been.