Remember that joke in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are trying to flirt, and the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking? It’s a charming little gag, right? Now imagine that it was extended across the whole film – every single line of dialogue was captioned with an “honest” translation that punctured each character’s attempt at wit, persuasion or self-promotion. It would be excruciatingly tiresome after a few minutes, right? If you suspect that the previous sentence is true, you don’t need to read any further than this – The Invention of Lying will bore you rigid, and you should avoid it at all costs. If you need more persuasion, perhaps I should bring out the big guns, an insult I don’t deploy lightly: The Invention of Lying is the worst film I’ve seen at the cinema since Highlander II.
From the very first minute, I was distracted by the inconsistencies of the film’s “high concept”. It’s set in a world where humans have evolved without the ability to lie, and so they seem duty bound to spout whatever’s on the top of their head. It begins with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner going on a date – she, of course, immediately declares that she finds him unattractive and will not be having sex with him. It’s a neat way to set out the rules of this world, but the flatness of the humour left me enough laughless minutes to get distracted, and it all collapsed. So, people deliver brutal statements of disinterest and verbal abuse at every turn, yet nobody ever gets offended? And still they prattle in with communication that is never met with a reaction? If total truth-telling makes people very efficient and utilitarian in their choices, why do people bother persisting on bad dates? Why is Gervais’ boss nervous about firing him if nobody cares about causing offence? So, everybody believes everything at face value, never questions authority, yet human history has developed exactly as it has in the real world? Science and technology developed normally, even though there was presumably never a need for the curiosity and inquiry needed for such things? Can people behave deceitfully if they don’t say untruths out loud? Ricky Gervais invented God so that people might have something to make them feel better about dying? Phew, that settles the possibility that making up fantasies to cope with the vicissitudes of a harsh and random universe is a natural human instinct. But … where did that church come from?
Now, I really shouldn’t have been thinking about any of this. I should have been too busy laughing. I didn’t sit through Woody Allen’s Sleeper (another film in which a comedy writer built a plot around portraying himself as a privileged outsider who runs rings around a robotic, pliant society due to his exceptional grasp of societal instincts,) worrying about the impossibility of cryogenics and cyber-dogs. That’s because Sleeper is full of great jokes. The Invention of Lying was met with almost complete stony silence, and that was in a city-centre multiplex on a Friday night. In a cinema that sells beer in the aisles. Personally, I laughed once, and that was during a cameo from Steven Merchant and Barry from Eastenders that is so daft and incongruous that it just lightened the whole mood by stepping out of the plodding, self-important movie that had clumsily tried to incorporate it.
Ricky Gervais has built a career out of self-mockery, but it’s not fooling anyone when it’s a sideways strategy to buy himself the right to schmaltzy, self-aggrandising plotlines where the world comes to recognise him for who he really is: of course he’s a better, more rounded human being than everyone else – he’s written everyone else to be a self-absorbed, shallow wage slave and then placed them in a world that automatically justifies him lazily keeping them that way. It’s an ego comedy in the tradition of What Women Want (Mel Gibson is the only man who can hear what ladies have in their brains! Imagine the possibilities!) Bruce/Evan Almighty (Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell becomes God/Noah! Watching them exercise their powers on an unsuspecting world is bound to be hilarious!), but there’s also a hint that Gervais fancies himself as a Larry David-style, misanthropic sage, cutting through the bullshit of a boobytrapped social scene with his own brand of common sense (and bringing in celeb friends in the process). In a move from which even M. Night Shyamalan might balk, he casts himself as a screenwriter who invents the entire concept of fiction (prior to which, all movies consist of filmed of lectures detailing the key facts of history. He might play the role of a revolutionary in the entertainment industry, but in this script Gervais is hidebound by sentimentalism and half-baked religious satire: his character invents a “man in the sky” to comfort his dying mother and explain away all the inconsistencies in his other fabulations. Fine, a satirical statement that religion is only possible in a world where lying is possible, but it ends up so compromised in the process – the idea of the consolatory untruth is introduced without further comment. So, lying is OK, and blind faith is its natural complement.
All of Gervais’ work will inevitably bring back memories of The Office, and it’s worth remembering that that series was driven by beautifully observed, detailed performances that were underpinned by an empathy even for the most unpleasant or irritating characters. The Office had a superb ensemble cast, and Gervais generously granted them fully-rounded personalities and great lines – in this film he surrounds himself with a crowd of anonymous cyphers for his sollipsistic wish-fulfilment. Remember that scene where David Brent begs for his job? It was suddenly, surprisingly moving because it had been studiously earned over the course of a whole series, revealing the desperately beating heart of a man who we’ve been mocking for six episodes. When Gervais gets his big emotional moment in The Invention of Lying (i.e. tears flow and his voice goes squeakier), it’s sudden enough, but it goes by so quickly, a plotpoint rather than an emotional revelation, backed up by an insistent string section. It’s unironic, unreconstructed schmaltz, as is the tacky, rescued-from-the-altar conclusion. Gervais’ longstanding promise to innovate from inside the Hollywood system has fallen by the wayside in the rush to imagine himself at the heart of its most worn out formulae.