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.