The Invention of Lying

You probably already know that “The Invention of Lying” takes place in a world where deception doesn’t exist. Mankind never developed the ability. Everyone is 100 percent truthful all the time — not because they feel obligated to, but because the concept of lying has literally never occurred to them. If someone came along who COULD lie, well, his power would be almost limitless. Everyone would believe everything he said. The skill of lying would be what scientists call an evolutionary advantage.

In a strange way, that’s sort of what “The Invention of Lying” is about: the forward progression of the human species. Co-written and directed by Ricky Gervais and newcomer Matthew Robinson, the film has its wacky moments reveling in the absurdity of a world where no one lies, some of which feel like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch or an improv show. (“Your suggestion is: ‘a world where no one lies’! The scene is: a blind date! Go!”) But it’s also surprisingly thoughtful, even tender, in the way it considers love, relationships, and God.

For what you might not already know about the film is that lying isn’t the only thing absent from this world. There’s no religion, either. No one believes in God — that word, like “lie,” is never used — because no one ever thought to make him up. (The movie’s view, one infers, is that God is imaginary and thus wouldn’t be part of a world where no one ever fabricated.) The Man in the Sky, as God comes to be known, is the invention of our hero, Mark Bellison (Gervais), a loser who suddenly finds that he can say things that aren’t true.

It starts out simply enough. The bank teller asks how much money is in his account, and something snaps in his brain. (The movie actually shows us his brain. It’s an important event in human history, after all.) He tells her $800 even though he knows it’s only $300. She checks the computer, sees $300, and assumes it must be an error. Mark said he has $800, so he must have $800. What other explanation could there be??

Well, he could just be WRONG. This is a world without lies, not a world without honest mistakes. No one ever asks for clarification, though. People will believe whatever you say, even if it contradicts the last thing you said. They usually don’t even seem confused. Consequently, everyone comes across as simple-minded, almost robotic. And I want to quibble with another aspect, too, which is that people reveal every thought they have. Mark goes on a blind date with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), and the plain-faced restaurant hostess tells her, out of nowhere, “I’m threatened by you.” Now, if Anna had asked the hostess what she thought of her, obviously she’d have to tell the truth. But why blurt it out? It’s not dishonest to keep some things to yourself. That’s not deception; that’s simple civility. Then again, I know people in real life who feel compelled to vocalize every single thought they have. I’ve sat near them in movie theaters.

But back to our story. Once he realizes he can lie, Mark has a good bit of fun before spontaneously making up the concept of “heaven” to comfort a dying person. No one had ever thought of an afterlife, you see. Next thing he knows he’s an unwitting prophet, pulling doctrines out of thin air to tell people to make them happy.

Mark isn’t happy, though. He’s in love with Anna, who rejects him because he isn’t a good genetic match for their offspring. This world is all about evolution, the survival of the fittest. A better choice for Anna would be Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), Mark’s handsome and smarmy co-worker.

I was frankly astonished to see Gervais do such serious, heartfelt work in a couple of scenes. It’s a bold move for a comedian, especially one so well known for playing jackasses, but he pulls it off. The comedic scenes, meanwhile, are vintage Gervais, with that terrific mix of exasperation and condescension. Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, and Jeffrey Tambor are excellent in supporting roles, and we get some nice cameos by the likes of Jason Bateman and John Hodgman, too.

The fact that the film is less funny than I expected doesn’t bother me. It’s generally funny when it tries to be. It just has some serious things on its mind, too, and that’s OK. The God angle gives it some extra dimension, another layer to peel off the high-concept onion.

What is a problem is the relationship between Mark and Anna. She professes love for his kindness and wit, and believes he would make a good husband. It’s only his drab physical appearance that puts her off. Mark, meanwhile, thinks Anna is perfect in every way — but the thing is, she’s not. She’s shallow and vain, and in ways that go beyond “I’m just being honest.” Apart from her beauty, we don’t know what Mark sees in her. Considering the whole story rests on his attempts to earn her love, this deficiency is troubling.

Apart from that and what feels like a rushed finale, however, “The Invention of Lying” is a satisfying comedy with a fair number of solid laughs. Its strange concept and storyline make it something of a curiosity, too: you can have fun thinking about it even after it’s over. Honest.

B- (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some vulgarity.)