The arrival of Ricky Gervais’s cinematic directorial debut has been awaited with anticipation not unlike that reserved for the second coming of Christ. This metaphor can only be considered apt when the British comedian, halfway through The Invention of Lying, dons a white robe, sports a bushy beard, and explains to the people of Earth how he has a direct line to The Man in the Sky. In the world of television, Gervais is pretty much the closest thing we have to a deity. His programs The Office and Extras, written and directed by himself and creative partner Stephen Merchant, have already been ushered into the pantheon of the greats. The world of cinema has been less kind to Gervais. After a couple of cameos here and there, he made his starring debut last year in David Koepp’s box office flop Ghost Town, in which he proved himself to be a considerable leading man. At the time we could only imagine the heights he would reach with a film that came from his own pen.
Well, if Ricky arrived as a lamb in Ghost Town, he hasn’t returned as a lion here. With The Invention of Lying, Gervais and his new collaborator Matthew Robinson ask the audience: “what if you lived in a world where nobody could tell a lie?” Despite flirting dangerously close to ‘Rob Schneider’ territory, the concept brims with possibilities, particularly for Gervais’s brand of awkward, confrontational humour. The film’s first half is gut-bustlingly hilarious, as uncomfortable truths dart around like poison barbs. However, as the picture descends into half-baked philosophising, Gervais perhaps unwittingly reveals another truth: Stephen Merchant was the truly talented one.
Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful but ultimately kind-hearted loser. Things are kind of rough for him at the moment. He has just lost his job as screenwriter for Lecture Films (in a world without lies, you go to the movies to watch someone recite historical events). His mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is on her deathbed. He has no money. Worst of all, the unrequited-love of his life, Anna (Jennifer Garner), refuses to date him. She’s looking for a suitable mate with better genetic material than Mark has to offer. Clearly the people in this universe are of the Evolutionary school of thought. The tide turns for Mark when he discovers that, lo and behold, he can say something that is UN-true. Yes, he can lie. He can invent historical events to write screenplays about; he can talk bank tellers into happily handing over all their money; he can even convince women to sleep with him, lest the universe implode. Except Anna. He wants to earn her love truthfully. She warms to him over time, but still can’t get over that genetic material business.
Now here is the kicker. When Mark’s mother begins to slip off the mortal coil, she looks at her son with fear in her eyes, exclaiming how she doesn’t want to enter a world of nothingness. In a desperate move to ease her mind, Mark begins to tell her of a life that follows death (an afterlife if you will), in which she will be surrounded by all her loved ones and she will never feel pain again. It is the film’s best moment and Gervais delivers his version of eternity with such heartfelt anguish you can barely believe this is the same man who once played the smarmy David Brent. His speech is overheard by a group of doctors and nurses and The Word of Mark spreads round the globe like wildfire. Seems the formerly unreligious have begun to take his word for, well, Gospel.
Although The Invention of Lying has enough funny moments to be worth the price of admission, it too often relies on schmaltzy clichés. And I mean the really obvious ones that neither The Office nor Extras ever stooped too. As anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy already knows, when a priest asks if anyone has any objections during a wedding, someone will always say “I do!” It’s hard to accept that Gervais would conclude his first film in such a blisteringly unoriginal way. I guess the truth hurts.