Just a few minutes into their first date, Mark (Ricky Gervais) learns that Anna (Jennifer Garner) is “way out of his league.” Their waiter ((Martin Starr) tells him. It’s not as if Mark doesn’t see this himself: she’s tall, bright, and gorgeous, after all, and he is “short and dumpy,” as he tells you right away. It doesn’t help that the waiter’s observation comes after his own confession (“I’m very embarrassed I work here”) or that Anna is polite and matter of fact when she agrees (“Well, look at me”). Still, and as disappointed as he is to hear it, Mark accepts the assessment because it’s true. Just like everything that everyone says in The Invention of Lying.
Mark and Anna and the waiter live in an alternate reality where no one lies and, apparently, no one thinks to hold back what on his mind. The premise is silly and clever, its very illogic producing jokes, as when Mark first arrives at Anna’s door and she immediately informs him that she’s just been masturbating. He doesn’t miss a beat: “That,” he answers, “makes me think of your vagina.” She smiles blandly, then suggests he sit while she continues her preparations for the evening, which will likely include finishing her masturbation, quietly, so he won’t know. Only he does, he announces from the sofa, when he hears that upstairs it is, “like, too quiet.”
As he narrates The Invention of Lying, Mark offers a mostly sardonic view of his world, where he is bound to become, he says, the first person to lie. He comes by that privilege more or less honestly, seeing that he works as a movie writer for Lecture Films Motion Picture Studios. That is, he writes down historical stories, passed down over ages, and then movie stars read scripts while seated in comfy Masterpiece Theater-style chairs. Assigned to the 14th century, Mark has been stuck with the Black Plague, not exactly a blockbuster. His chief rival at work, Brad (ever-tanned Rob Lowe), snarks over his own success (he’s got access to 20th century adventures) and explains his enmity as a result of not “understanding” Mark. “I hate things I don’t understand,” he says, then adds, “You’re a little man bitch.”
This is the trick of truth-telling in Gervais’ movie (co-written and directed with Matthew Robinson), that it tends to be mean, a lot of name-calling and self-inflating. By the same token, Mar’s invention of lying will be motivated by empathy. This makes it easy to dislike the villain Brad, whose honesty proceeds from his ego (whether you read that as insecurity or huge confidence), and to root for Mark, whose observations of absurd if typical behaviors tend to be wry, much like Gervais’ own comedy. He’s compassionate toward his consistently inebriated best friend (Louis C.K.) and a miserable neighbor (Jonah Hill), who each morning in the elevator describes his last night’s efforts to kill himself, and wary of his secretary Shelley (Tina Fey), who informs him with a wicked half-smile that she’s “overqualified” for her job and that he’s sure to be fired from his.
Because Mark’s perspective is yours, his decision at last to lie for an altruistic purpose—after he’s tried soliciting sex based on a lie and convinced the bank to give him much-needed rent money—seems right. Feeling guilty that his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) has spent her last days feeling appropriately unhappy in a nursing home (whose sign names it frankly, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People”), Mark wants to soothe her as she faces death. And so his seemingly impromptu decision to make up heaven, as well as a “Man in the Sky” who ordains fate and makes rules for human behavior, looks like benevolence. Mark doesn’t mean to become a celebrity, the only man on the planet with direct access to the Man in the Sky, but he’s willing to exploit his good fortune because, well, he’s really an insecure guy who’s caught off-guard when someone is appalled to learn the Man in the Sky has caused destruction and havoc in the world (“I say, ‘Fuck the man that lives in the sky!’”), but recovers nicely, admitting that the Man is “kind of a good guy but kind of a prick too.” The gullible masses can only accept the new truth Mark delivers, that the world is so ordered and there’s nothing they can do about it.
This story is in part an effect of Mark’s own insecurity, his belief in spite of everything that Anna is in fact out of his league. When at last he contrives to upset that particular order, the movie pretty much collapses. He’s up against a truth that is also a longstanding cultural fiction. Anna has been raised to want a mate with good genes in order to produce perfect children, and so resists a union with Mark, whom she actually likes, as this would produce “fat, snub-nosed” progeny. This means she’s in need of rescuing by Mark, who can envision himself as a savior because he is, after all, writing the lie of her life.
Mark’s ability to see all—because he can lie and know it—makes his annotations true by definition, while Anna’s incomprehension, her abject sincerity, makes her both charming and dumb. It’s a conventionally gendered division of rom-com labor that’s not exactly ameliorated by his good intentions. While the long-out atheist Gervais is well aware that the movie’s representation of religion as a lie will surprise or disturb some viewers, he seems less attuned to the troubling aspects of traditional romance fictions. As Mark watches his one true love make one mistake after another, waiting for his chance to save her from herself, The Invention of Lying is increasingly tedious.