Gimmick can't keep this 'Lying' up

Posted: October 02, 2009

Once you read the title, you've pretty much seen the movie.

The Invention of Lying is just what it sounds like: a fable about an alternate world in which everyone tells the absolute truth. As the narrator observes, "No deceit, no flattery, no fiction."

It's hardly a utopia because no one is capable of masking unhappiness or insecurities.

As a waiter approaches a table, he doesn't open with, "My name is Chad. I'll be your server tonight." Instead he blurts out, "I'm very embarrassed I work here."

So how's the veal?

Then a sad little man (Ricky Gervais) fudges the facts, and it's off to the fixed races. He discovers that being able to simply make stuff up acts like a magic wand in an utterly credulous society. Just saying something makes it so.

He quickly becomes the Ponce de Leon of Deception, the Magellan of Mendacity.

Gervais, who cowrote and codirected this comedy, has great fun establishing the premise. TV and print ads, for instance, take on a very different tone when the copywriters are constrained by truth.

And office politics grow quite blunt when your adversaries dispense with stabbing you in the back and come right at you with their blades exposed.

But Invention - a mash-up of two Jim Carrey comedies, Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty - flirts with being a one-gag pony. Shocking sincerity loses its comic impact after a while.

The film depends on a series of surprise cameos to jolt its momentum. The appearances of everyone from Jason Bateman to Jimmi Simpson (Lyle the intern on Late Show) are delightful. But it's always a bad sign when you're using stunt casting as a trump card.

Gervais really should have learned that lesson during his HBO series, Extras.

Once Invention's initial conceit is played out, the script deploys a pair of unlikely plot devices - one biblical, one romantic - to stay afloat.

Gervais is far more affecting early on as the nebbish resigned to getting stomped by life than he is once he becomes the all-powerful prevaricator.

His sidekick (comedian Louis C.K.) undergoes an even more disconcerting transformation. A slovenly knuckle-dragger for the length of the film, he suddenly stands up, erect and noble, at the end. And Tina Fey's talents are wasted in her role as a tart-tongued administrative assistant.

The only notable acting going on here is Jennifer Garner's. The unobtainable apple of Gervais' saddlebagged eye, Garner is eerily convincing as a naif who believes everything she is told.

The puckish Invention of Lying treads over its satiric territory lightly, but without leaving much of an impression.


The Invention of Lying **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson. With Gervais, Jennifer Garner, and Louis C.K. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sexual and drug references).

Playing at: area theaters.


Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand

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