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April 11th, 2011

Movie review: The Invention of Lying

THE INVENTION OF LYING, 100 minutes
Directors: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Writers: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Stars: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Luis C.K., and Jonah Hill

This story is not entirely a new idea. Think back to Galaxy Quest, where aliens assumed a Star Trek-like show was real because they had no concept of fiction. And many years ago, I read a science fiction novel (I think it was All the Colors of Darkness, by Lloyd Biggle, but I could be remembering wrongly) in which the earth was in a virtual quarantine because we, alone of all the known species, could lie.

In this movie, Earth looks pretty much the same as what you see out the window (if you live in New England), not futuristic in any way. Ricky Gervais explains in a voice-over that no one can lie; it's not just that they must speak truth or keep silent, they can't hold back any thought. If they think it, out of their mouths it comes. When Mark Bellison (Gervais) goes on a date with Anna McDoogles (Garner), the waiter asks openly if she would give him her number (she says no) and then tells Mark she is way out of his league.

Mark knows that, but he has had a crush on Anna since high school. Actually, high school probably wasn't that much worse an experience on Mark's earth, come to think of it. At least the truth-blurters aren't, for the most part, trying to be cruel.

An exception is Brad Kesller, Mark's rival for Anna and at work. Brad and Mark both write “scripts” that are really just descriptions of historical events, narrated by talking heads employed as on-camera talent (and I use the word loosely) at Lecture Films, where Mark and Brad both work. When Mark gets canned from his job for not making the Black Plague interesting enough, he is so desperate that something fires in his brain and he tells a lie that results in him getting money that isn't really his.

Mark can't even explain what he did to Anna. The words truth and lie don't exist in his world. All he can say is, “I said something that wasn't.” And then, in an effort to make his mother less afraid of dying, he basically invents religion, and everyone believes what he said to her. You could even call it “The Gospel According to Mark.” I don't think anyone uses that line in the movie, but they certainly could have. After he's rejected by Anna, Mark lets his hair and beard grow and spends his time sleeping; when he answers the door wrapped in the bedclothes, his appearance is deliberately Biblical.

The two intersecting plot lines are Mark's love for Anna, and the consequences of his using his strange ability to lie. Mark gains wealth and power, but life isn't as good as he thought it would be. That's partly because he doesn't have Anna. As she tells him honestly, she wants someone who can give her the children she wants, children who won't be chubby, snub-nosed losers. For her, that means she should marry Brad. Finally, Mark finds his limit; there are things he won't lie about to get what he wants.

It's a charming, very funny story, and I enjoyed watching it. I do wish, though, that Hollywood would stop making movies that illustrate looks are less important than what's inside a person by having a schlubby guy fall for a beautiful woman who learns to love him back. Why can't the guy be the one to learn looks aren't that important by falling for a not-so-gorgeous woman?

Still, this was spec fic that illustrates one of the joys of speculating. It's much easier to skewer human foibles if you can alter your characters' genetic make-up in any way that you like.

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