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the invention of lying
the most truthful film in years
by katherine l (aka clevertitania) (@CleverTitania)

Warning: The following contains spoilers from almost minute one. Sorry, but this is less a review and more of a discussion about the rather heady themes in this film. Just can’t be done properly without some facts. But I’ll keep the details as minimal as I can.

I’m sure that most people had the same reaction to the premise of The Invention of Lying as I did: sounds funny. Plus, I love Ricky Gervais and I adore Jennifer Garner. So I figured, going into it, watching this movie would be a good time. It’s strange now, to think back on that notion. The idea of a world without lies is comical enough, but the one man who suddenly discovers he can lie, that’s just gonna bring on the hilarity. However, the reality of the first part of this film is actually quite sobering, in an Idiocracy kind of way.

Sure, a world without lies seems like a great idea. But the ripple effects of it are actually kind of staggering. For instance, the elimination of the concept of the lie means a lot of other things are never really invented; fiction for starters. Imagine that! Fiction is the product of years of fables and myths passed on by bards and family lines. But if everything everyone says is the truth; such tales are simply never conceived and the modern forms of art disappear into the ephemeral winds. In this film movies consist of professional Readers who recite stories of history. That’s all there is. TV appears to be a collection of things like the History and Discovery Channels. The advertising (both TV and print) is reduced to little more than pleas for consumers to buy their products. And it is interesting to note that Coke and Pepsi still exist in a world where a TV spokesman, as played by the fantastic Jimmi Simpson, openly admits just how bad this stuff is for you. There are other things you don’t really experience in the world of Invention but you get a sense for how they must be altered from how we know them; music, art, books, greeting cards.

But it gets worse. When Gervais’ character first tries to explain to his friend what he’s invented, he struggles because the word “Lie” is not in the English language. Now think about that for a moment. How many other words don’t exist, in a world where nothing but the truth is ever told? Here’s a short list I compiled.

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I guess if everyone tells the truth then being truthful isn’t really a trait to be concerned with. But it also seems that kindness and discretion got lost with the rest of the words. I can only hazard that the writers are working from the assumption that extremely logical people often appear rude, and if you always tell the truth you really don’t have any choice but to be super logical. Which is, let’s be honest, hard logic to argue with.

Interpersonal communication takes on a very different tone in a world of absolute truth. Anyone who is unattractive and unsuccessful is simply a loser and doomed to remain one. This is demonstrated, quite heartbreakingly, by Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Gervais’ suicidal neighbor Frank. And who wouldn’t be suicidal in a world like this one? Every unattractive trait you have is pointed out to you regularly. Marriage is based on little more than genetic compatibility (so if you’ve got bad genes good luck). Laughter hardly exists for anyone - even the beautiful people. And every time someone asks “How are you?” you have to tell them exactly how miserable you are.

I think the saddest reality for me is a world where no one tells jokes; because when you think about it, jokes are usually just lies and exaggerations. This is another point driven solidly home by the supporting cast. And you’ll have several, “I didn’t know he/she was in this?!” moments while watching this movie. Imagine a world with guys like Louis C.K. and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, where being funny and talented writers/actors/performers isn’t an option. What happens to the kid who can’t be a class clown to deflect the scorn of his more socially capable classmates? Well, by this film’s notions, he’s a pretty miserable bastard. In fact, you almost think Phillip Seymour Hoffman is playing himself in his brief cameo as a rather sad bartender. But hey, at least Tina Fay, Rob Lowe, Ed Norton and Jason Bateman are OK, since they are good looking in addition to being funny and talented. Well, by OK I mean they still have decent jobs. They are also all total douchebags.

Naming things also gets interesting in honesty land. For instance, the old-age home where Gervais’ mother lives is actually called, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and one of the first churches is named “A Quiet Place to Think about the Man in the Sky.” First churches you may ask? Of course, in a world without lies there is no such thing as religion. Well, at least not in the beginning. A rather simple twist of fate pushes Gervais’ character to do many things which greatly alter the course of humanity, and the creation of religion is probably the biggest (there is one arguably as big, but I’m not saying word one about that). And while I admit this part of the plot was quite obvious as it played out, it still resonated in a big way.

I’m sure some religious people find the theory offensive; that without lies religion would never have been born. But I find it a little off-putting that a world with absolute truth still produced a Napoleon Bonaparte, so they can just get over it.

When Mark (Gervais) tells the story that leads him to creating a rough form of Christianity, you really can’t blame him. One of the first things that Mark learns after he discovers this talent is that small lies can really make someone feel better. And in a world so full of honesty that one woman stands outside her office building telling strangers, “I just don’t want to go in there today. I just don’t, you know?” that little comfort can make a difference. The conversation - where Mark attempts to help the downtrodden Frank - makes you want to hug them both. And the scene when Mark first tells the story, which prompts him to bring religion to the masses, will make you weep for him in many ways. Deep down, he really just wants to help make the world a better place. I guess, in that way, he is very Jesus-like.

As someone who loves Gervais’ take on religion in his stand-up, I had to wonder just how much fun he had with the idea of himself as a prophet. But what I really loved about this part of the plot line is how Gervais owns up to the harsh truths of both religion and atheism. This film admits that having beliefs gives people comfort in their darkest moments, particularly the belief in an afterlife of comfort and happiness. But morality actually seems to suffer more with the introduction of religion, which is a rather harsh reality. Faith gives people an excuse to give up on a good life in this world, and being good for its own sake, focusing instead on the promises of the next life. But when you see the joy fill Anna’s (Garner) eyes, as Mark tells her the story of the afterlife, you understand why religion has such a profound effect. You also get a feeling for what things would have really been like for Moses on the mound. I’ll bet there was no crowd control in the desert.

Garner’s character is one of the most interesting, though on the surface she seems to be nothing but a vapid twit. But in a world like this one, where beautiful people’s primary obligation seems to be producing more pretty folks, you come to realize that she is 100% a product of her environment, like everyone else in this movie. Years of brutal honesty have trained the entire world to believe that, by and large, beautiful people are special and ugly people are losers. And neither group of individuals is even aware that there’s another way to be. Garner’s character struggles with the reality of her world and the twists that Gervais’ character creates but, as time passes, you empathize with her far more than you expect to. The world Mark shows her is one of happiness and fun, but it’s a world that makes no sense to her because it contradicts everything she knows to be true. And since False doesn’t exist (maybe on tests it still does), it’s no wonder she’s confused. But as her character develops she starts to wish she could see the world through Mark’s eyes. As her affection grows, and her reliance upon him to guide her gets stronger, she practically begs him to make something fictional a reality; that the Man in the Sky will miraculously make them as genetically compatible as they are emotionally. I would liken Anna to the ultimate template for all of the beautiful girls falling for the underachievers in romantic comedies. She says the same things they do, but in a far more brutally precise way. For the record, while Garner was wonderful and I have no desire to replace her, it would have also been really interesting to see Emily Deschanel in this role (I’m sure anyone familiar with her portrayal of Temperance Brennan would understand that motivation).

Every facet of this movie boggled my mind, and at the same time it was sweet, fun and endearing. The cast plays with this material masterfully, which is not surprising since it is just littered with comedic talent. The script is full of wonderful lines and hilarious conversations that can make you cringe while laughing - in the good way, not the penis stuck in a zipper kind of way. Even the set design and costumes seem to add to tweak reality of this new world. All the lines are very clean and the colors are carefully coordinated to maintain an eerie serenity. The score did a great job of keeping the tone of this film light and friendly, which helps with the spins caused by the subject matter. The editing and directing is also top notch. The pace of the film never feels rushed, nor does it drag on. Instead you are carried wonderfully from one incarnation of this strange new world to the next. And while this movie has a lot to say, it never fails to find humor in the moment. Whether it’s Stephanie March’s hilarious moment in the hotel for anonymous sex, the most amazing traffic stop you’ll ever see, or a home burglary that goes bizarrely awry.

For fans of Gervais in general, this is an easy sell. The jabs at religion and mass mentality are fun but not as judgmental as they could be. He also has a good time pointing out that honesty doesn’t require you to say every damn thing that forms in your brain. In this movie, it’s not just about telling the truth, it’s about telling the whole truth all the time. I don’t think anyone, living in the world we’re in today, which consider that a good thing. I’d say this film is also a good fit for any romantic comedy fan. The romantic element may not be the focal point, but it’s played out in a poignant and unique way that will elicit the appropriate number of jealous sighs. I’ve also advised my sis and her non-platonic flat mate to view this, based on his enjoyment of bizarre realities and anything that shows the world wouldn’t be an amoral cesspool if religion weren’t here to tell us how to treat one another. I’m expecting a “WTF!?” reply from my sister in the next few days.

Bottom line - this movie will make you feel, think and laugh; sometimes simultaneously. In my opinion, can’t do much better than that.

Big thanks to my Twitter buddy Jen_Hud for giving me some much needed editing help.


When I grow up, I want to be; whoever Joss Whedon wants to be, when he grows up. I am a writer because it's the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning; aside from eating and using the lavatory of course. My work includes screenplays, short stories, film/TV/music reviews and socio-political commentary. The last one is a fancy way of saying I like to shoot my mouth off on many topics. I excel at using $1.50 words. They gone up, thanks to inflation. Isn't our economy awesome?

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