Smarter than most of the year’s comedies and yet not nearly as smart as it should be, The Invention of Lying sets its sights high before settling for comfortable lovey-dovey convention. In an alternate reality where everyone instinctively tells the truth without the aid of a compassionate verbal filter, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) hits the jackpot when, in a moment of brain synapse-sparking inspiration, he lies and everyone unconditionally believes him. This leads to schemes that net him cash and professional promotion, though given that, in this brutal Darwinian world, one’s genetic makeup and appearance are prized above all else, Mark’s “snub-nosed” looks still guarantee that he has no shot with beautiful Anna (a bubbly, charming Jennifer Garner). Gervasis’s brutally frank milieu, in which resting homes are named “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People” and Mark’s neighbor (Jonah Hill) casually discusses his suicide plans, provides many opportunities for comedic bits with bite, his fumbling dialogue-scored scenarios unearthing the ways that falsehoods, of both a self-interested and altruistic nature, grease society’s interpersonal rails.
Invention of Lying‘s aspirations, however, are even grander, as becomes clear once Mark, attempting to assuage the deathbed fears of his mother (Fionnula Flanagan), concocts the notion of heaven. This fabrication turns him into an overnight Moses who, during a stingingly funny sequence, uses tablets of the Ten Commandments made of Pizza Hut boxes to explain to his flock the ins and outs of his new (Old) testament. Posited as a sham opiate for the frightened masses, religion would seem Gervais’s prime target, but the star/co-filmmaker treads more lightly and evenhandedly with issues of faith (shown to be a less harmful than beneficial force) than secular conduct, all while depicting deception as an agent for self-actualization. Yet after choosing to address organized religion’s legitimacy and efficacy, the film regrettably fails to sustain its theological and anthropological dissection, opting instead for mere formula.
Notable star cameos, not to mention the efforts of Gervais’s brilliant but misused co-star Louis C.K., fizzle almost on contact. It’s a devolution into sitcom mawkishness, though, that finally undoes Invention of Lying, which turns its attention away from imposing issues of faith, greed, and social responsibility to focus on the dreary rom-com-routine suspense of whether true love will trump pragmatic superficiality.