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Josh Reviews The Invention of Lying

The story of The Invention of Lying, as you’ve probably figured out from the trailers, unfolds in a universe almost identical to our own.  Except that, in this world, no human being has ever told a lie.  Ricky Gervais plays a rather Ricky Gervais-like character named Mark Bellison, an affable fellow who has not found himself particularly lucky with his advancement at work or with his love life.  And yet, as the film unfolds, something extraordinary finally happens to him — in a moment of desperation, something shifts in his brain and he tells a lie.

Things spiral a little bit out of control from there.

I’ve read and heard some negative reactions to this film, but don’t you believe them!  The Invention of Lying is a wonderful film, one of my favorites of the year.

The film is being sold as a comedy, and indeed, it is a very funny film.  Ricky Gervais (who, in addition to starring in the film co-wrote and co-directed it with Matthew Robinson) is a riot, and he brings a lot of whimsy to every aspect of the movie.  (There’s a particularly wonderful opening narration by Mr. Gervais that kicks off the film on exactly the right note.)  Supporting Mr. Gervais are a number of talented comedians who are along for the ride, such as Tina Fey (30 Rock), Louis C.K. (currently knocking ’em dead in a recurring guest role on Parks and Recreation), Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development) as well as a number of familiar funny faces in small cameos, such as Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks), Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman), Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) and The Daily Show vets Nathan Corddry and John Hodgman.

But while The Invention of Lying is a very funny film, I don’t really consider it to be a comedy.  Rather, I think of it as a fascinating piece of speculative fiction.  What the film does is to take a central idea (in this case, a world where no one has ever told a lie), and explore in great depth what that world would actually be like.  No one can lie — what would that mean for all of the daily, casual interactions we have with one another?  What would that mean for dating?  How about advertising?  Or writing?  (Gervais’ character is a screenwriter, and the film’s depiction of a screenwriter’s job in a world where fiction does not exist is just one of the many clever little touches that brings this parallel universe to life.)

This is also a film that, gasp, actually has something to say, and I was surprised by the left-hand turn that the film takes in a moment, late in the movie, when Gervais’ attempt to comfort his dying mother sets up enormous ripple effects in this world without lies.

I mentioned all of the terrific comedians who have roles in the film, but I should not neglect two key performers more known for their serious work.  Rob Lowe (The West Wing) plays Brad Kessler, another screenwriter who is everything that Gervais’ Mark Bellison is not: handsome and successful.  Lowe is mostly known for his dramatic chops (though he certainly displayed comedic skills often enough on The West Wing, and he was also a fun presence in the Austin Powers films), but I thought he was a riot here.  (He makes a good decision in playing his role entirely straight, minimizing any comedic mugging for the camera.)  I also, as always, found myself quite smitten by Jennifer Garner (Juno, Sydney Bristow on Alias) as Anna, the woman for whom Mark longs.  She brings an enormous amount of humanity to a role that, in lesser hands, could have come across as shallow.

From the very first time I watched the British version of The Office, it was clear to me that Ricky Gervais was a comedic talent with a distinct voice.  I have followed him through most of his projects ever since, without regret.  (Though I did skip that American film in which he acted where he played a dentist who sees dead people.)  If The Invention of Lying is still playing in a theatre near you when you read this, I highly recommend that you go give it a look.

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