Film

'Lying' is a Likeable Religious Spoof


The Invention of Lying

Director: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., John Hodgman, Tina Fey
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-10-02 (General release)
UK date: 2009-10-02 (General release)
Website
Trailer

It seems odd, given the immeasurable popularity of his Office sitcom (both in its UK and USA variations) that Ricky Gervais is still not a major movie star. Oh sure, he's been in several motion pictures, playing bit parts (Night at the Museum 1 & 2), extended cameos (For Your Consideration) and unfairly overlooked leading roles (Ghost Town), but for the most part, audiences see him as a TV type guy and that's about it. Even a recent HBO stand up concert revealed a side few in his fanbase have seen (and let's not even mention his status as an '80s pop star, okay?). Perhaps all this will change with his newest big screen effort, The Invention of Lying. Co-written, co-directed and starring Gervais, it's perhaps one of the slyest religious satires since Monty Python's Life of Brian. No, really.

Religious satire, you say. Indeed, what ads and trailers don't tell you about the plot is that Gervais' character, a screenwriter named Mark Bellison who lives in a world where nobody lies, becomes an unlikeable backhanded messiah. Everyone is this peculiar parallel universe is brutally honest, almost to the point of being abusive. Still, it's how everyone lives. Mark is about to be fired from his job, his 13th Century stories about the Black Plague unable to compete with the far more popular films of star scribe Brad Kessler. He's also having a hard time finding a girlfriend. One particular young lady who he's obsessed with dismisses his intentions by citing their genetic incompatibility. Still, he pursues Anna because of his own need to feel special and wanted.

Eventually, he is fired. Out of work, out of money, and with no place to stay, Mark discovers an unusual fact about his social situation. If he makes up something that isn't, if he lies about life, he can fashion it into whatever he wants. Another incident suddenly skyrockets him into the realm of religious icon, since everyone now believes Mark knows what happens after we die. Thus Gervais takes what could have been a very one note comedy skit idea and twists it into a commentary on faith, conformity, the universal fear of dying and the thoroughly ridiculous nature of organized belief. Within 20 minutes or so, the entire lying dynamic is explored, Mark vying for sex and success with equally unusual results. Then a tragedy takes us out of the sketch comedy motif and directly into something that sends a clear message about God, his prophets, and those who base their life on such traditional "tall tales."

And again, it's interesting how no one would know this from the previews. It's as if Universal, well aware of the reception previous films critical of religion have received, is purposefully avoiding any mention of "the Man in the Sky", and yet it's this material that gives The Invention of Lying its verve and long lasting narrative drive. We are curious what will happen once Mark is made messiah, interested in where Gervais and co-conspirator Matthew Robinson will take the story next. We get nods to Moses, the Ten Commandments, evangelism, and the entire interpretation/re-interpretation of teachings that drive so many forward thinking individuals to question belief in general. Toss in Mark's continued quest for Anna, he weird friendship with fellow "losers" Louis CK and Johan Hill, and a couple of standout dramatic scenes, and you wind up with something that will confuse most, aggravate some, and thoroughly tickle a chosen, clued-in few.

Indeed, there are other elements at play here that many may not see. There is racism in the honest world, the successful shying away and separating themselves from those outside their level of personal triumph and aesthetic. Instead of using some manner of mean-spirited epithet at their targets, the rich and beautiful coin common terms like "loser", "fatty", and "biological inferior". It's incredible to see the same ludicrous lines of delineation expressed in a world where, supposedly, there is no pretense. Indeed, Gervais seems to be suggesting that, no matter what, truth or lies, honesty or abject deceit, people will still single each other out for incredibly specious reasons. Similarly, when the religious material kicks in, the myth making and false idolatry really undercut the more meaningful elements of personal faith. Religion has really never looked so ludicrous.

Such substance definitely helps get us past the movie's main flaw - its saggy superficiality. Not of content, mind you, but of character. As our lead, Gervais's Mark is completely fleshed out, complicated without being dense, likeable while doing some fairly insensitive things. But as for the rest of his cast, they seem unable to find a third dimension. Jennifer Garner's Anna is so intent on being upwardly mobile - both financially and biologically - that she really has no other personality beat, and Rob Lowe's smug, snide Brad Kessler was just summed up with those two words. From Jeffrey Tambor's film boss who's too cowardly to fired someone to Hill's singular suicidal tendencies, many of the main players in this otherwise winning farce are as one note as the proposed premise. And yet somehow, even despite himself, Gervais gets it to work - and he does so by risking the alienation of his audience.

Like Mike Judge when he called out his viewers as a bunch of 'fat retards' in Idiocracy, The Invention of Lying casts a critical light on the gullible and the guileless, the narrow minded and the unquestioning. It calls out the converted and makes fun of those who still believe that God created the Heavens and Earth. Indeed, in a world where only the truth can be told, how does religion begin or take hold? Unless there's some fact-based pronouncement that everyone can clamor for and cling to, Gervais argues it can't exist. Only in a situation where lies trump reality can such an allegorical idea truly flourish. After all, faith is based on belief without seeing, and this goes directly against a situation where seeing is everything. As a work of subversive satire, The Invention of Lying is clever and cutting. As a challenge to all those who still supplicate to a "higher power", the smart cinematic reality may be too tough to take.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
9
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image