In his mild comedy The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais imagines a world where no one has ever told an untruth. People just say what is. Always. So everyone knows exactly where everyone stands on everything.
At the office, for instance, Gervais' Mark — an amiable shlub of a movie screenwriter — can have no illusions about the hostility of his officemates. On a blind date, he knows that Anna (Jennifer Garner) thinks he's fat, hates his nose, and isn't going to sleep with him. Or even give him a goodnight kiss. And long before his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) comes into his office, he knows he's going to get fired for writing unpopular movies.
This last, to be fair, isn't really Mark's fault: One of the film's nicer conceits is that with no concept of fiction or of acting, movies might necessarily be a little dry — they're basically history lectures — and it's Mark's ill fortune to have been assigned the Black Plague. Big box office is unlikely. So he finds himself unemployed, and unable to pay the rent.
Then he does something no one has ever done: He makes up a bank balance sufficient to pay his landlord. And because everyone always tells the truth, the teller assumes her computer has made an error, and gives it to him.
Now, this immediately strikes Mark as useful, even if there's no word for what he's done. So he does it again, this time out of kindness. He visits his mother in her retirement home (the sign reads: "A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die"), and finding her frightened of oblivion on her deathbed, he makes up an afterlife, where he says she'll be happy.
Because no one lies, she dies with a smile. Then Mark looks up, and sees the doctors and nurses looking stunned. They want details.
So Mark has to basically invent religion on the spot. He says there's a Man in the Sky who takes care of folks who've died, and who's also responsible for everything on Earth.
"Even my cancer?" wonders someone, and ... well, let's just say Mark's ad-libbed improvisations have to get more complicated.
Now, the bald implication — that organized religion couldn't exist unless people could lie — is pretty bold for a mainstream comedy. And if the film pursued that notion more vigorously, The Invention of Lying might be pretty bold itself.
But having conceived of a world where the ability to lie wouldn't be a liability, the filmmakers more or less abandon the comedy of ideas to pursue — make that settle for — romantic comedy instead. It's pleasant enough romantic comedy, I guess, but a serious letdown if you're hoping for some edgier truth-telling from the guy who created TV's scabrously blunt Extras.
Most of Lying's laughs, in fact, turn out to be independent of the film's actual premise: They're not so much about people speaking truly as about people speaking rudely.
"I've always hated you," a co-worker (Rob Lowe) tells Mark, without being asked, and you can't help thinking that he might just as easily have stayed quiet without violating his world's strict truthiness. So some gags land, while others seem so lazily conceived that even cameo-ing A-listers like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey and Edward Norton can't do much with them.
Gervais can do plenty, of course. The man long ago perfected being a walking punching bag for his own punch lines. Still, if the truth be told, by the end of The Invention of Lying, even his invention is starting to flag.