Friday, October 02, 2009

The Invention of Lying - Hilarious, but meant to be much more

Just got back from The Invention of Lying. Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison - the only man capable of being dishonest in a world where everyone tells the absolute, blunt truth. It's reminiscent of Life of Brian not only because the lead is an Englishman, but because like Graham Chapman's hapless character in the earlier film, Bellison accidentally starts a religion. In fact, he does Brian one better. He creates the very concept of religion. He eventually reaps all the worldly benefits one would expect one could receive in such a position, except for what he wants most - the love of Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner).

The Invention of Lying is a very funny movie. In many parts - perhaps most memorably a scene in which Gervais delivers the precepts of his made-up religion to the masses on the backs of two pizza boxes - it's utterly, cruelly hilarious. There are parts that tend to drag on a bit and transitions between scenes that seem awkward and forced, but overall it's a great comedy with wonderful cameos by Tina Fey, Ed Norton, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and more.

Unfortunately, I can't help but think Gervais and co. missed a wonderful opportunity here. Bellison's stumbling upon religion comes about when he consoles his mother on her deathbed. He tells her she has more than eternal nothingness to look forward to, and essentially invents the concept of Heaven. The doctor and nurses overhear this, and soon the whole world learns that some guy has figured out what happens after you die, forcing Bellison to come up with more lies to cover his ass.

In other words, the film's concept is based on the presumption that religion is a lie. The only way the fictional world of The Invention of Lying could be introduced to the concept of the afterlife is through its only liar. The filmmakers are not at all subtle about turning Bellison into a Christ figure. He is treated as a prophet, the entire world believing completely that he's the only person capable of communicating with "the Man in the Sky." By the end of the film, you're treated to a Ricky Gervais with a long head of hair, a scraggly beard, shuffling around his mansion in his bedsheets which look suspiciously like robes. No one cried out "heretic" at my viewing, but then again I saw it in a Central New York art house. I wouldn't doubt we'll be hearing stories of angry God-fearing folk storming out of theaters in the next few weeks.

But this very promising concept, a wonderfully inventive tool at exploring religious belief, ultimately goes nowhere. The filmmakers whittle it down to the point where it's really nothing more than a slightly off-kilter romantic comedy. I'm not saying that every film has to be a willful statement about religion, but this movie felt like it really wanted to be something along those lines and just lost its courage on the way.

It is a funny movie, don't get me wrong. I busted a gut. It's just a shame the filmmakers decided to take something with so much potential and purposely break it down into something mundane.

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