The Invention of Lying (review)

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To Tell the Truth

It’s rare that a film — especially a studio film — does this: goes so far in a direction you weren’t even expecting it would go in at all that the shock of it is doubled. It’s easy to see why none of the promotional material for The Invention of Lying even begins to hint at how sneakily subversive the film is — it had me literally gasping at its daring, and how that daring steals up on you — because it goes to a place that will shock many moviegoers. What starts out as a kind of comedic episode of The Twilight Zone has, by the halfway mark, turned a corner into a satire on an aspect of humanity that some take so much for granted they won’t even have realized it could be open to such a commentary.
Star Ricky Gervais wrote and directed Lying with first-time filmmaker Matthew Robinson, and from the get-go he takes a bracingly self-aware tack with his tale. It all occurs in a world in which no one has the capacity to lie, and Gervais dispenses with the need to examine how people can even talk about the concept of a lie if they’ve never encountered such a thing before, which does present a bit of a parsing problem, by consciously framing this as a fable he is relating to an audience — us — who are already familiar with the idea. His meta-omniscient narration (which takes on an extra dollop of irony later on) informs us as the film opens about the barriers and limitations of the people of this clearly unworkable world, and how it will all change when the character he plays will accidentally stumble across the notion of The Lie. It frees the story from worrying too much about plausibility and leaves it to concern itself with the philosophical conumdrums it will invariably encounter, which is the entire point of the exercise.

And an uproarious exercise it is, reveling in a Monty Python-esque outrageousness to explore the simplest consequences of the world’s first lies and grandest extrapolations that can be spun from the possibilities of lying. Gervais’s (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Ghost Town) Mark Bellison is a schlubby writer… of nonfiction, of course: there is no fiction in this world, and the movies Mark writes are the baldest, plainest kind of documentary. Not only does no one in Mark’s world lie, but everyone is constantly spouting whatever thoughts are crossing their mind. What we would consider a simple polite request such as “Are you doing okay?” — one that typically, in fact, demands a response of “Yes, thanks,” even if that is less than honest — in this world gets a reply of, “Usually. Some days I stay in bed eating and crying.” Instead of keeping her mouth politely shut at the prospect of a date with Mark, his dream girl, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Juno), instantly reveals that she’s not attracted to him because he’s kinda fat and not very handsome.

At first — even before Mark discovers it is indeed possible to say something that is not true — Gervais and Robinson use this ever-truthful world to send up office politics and romance and the lies that grease both types of human interaction. (Rob Lowe [Thank You for Smoking, View from the Top] and Tina Fey [Ponyo, Baby Mama] are hilarious are Mark’s coworkers, who are constitutionally unable to hide their disdain for him.) But even as Mark is still marveling at the awesome power suddenly at his behest now that he can lie, the film turns slyly bitter and biting: a street person holds up a sign that reads, “I don’t understand why I’m homeless and you’re not.” And we begin to understand how beige and boring this world is without the power of human imagination to enliven it. We begin to notice things like this: On the wall of Mark’s apartment is a dartboard… and next to it, a painting of dartboard. If a thing cannot be seen in this world, it cannot exist, not even in a painting. (The production design by Alex Hammond is so subtle and so clever that it will likely go unnoticed, but it contributes powerfully to the overwhelming blandness of this world.)

And then, the true uncomfortable brilliance of The Invention of Lying begins to show its face. Even as the film turns into something downright seditious by asking probing questions about the lies that we, in our world, may be dealing with on a daily basis without ever realizing they may well be lies, it also recognizes a positive side to our ability to deceive and conceive: not only do we brighten our world and enrich our lives with how we use our imaginations, but — the film wonders — is it wrong to tell a lie if it makes someone happy? If it isn’t wrong to tell a lie for that reason, is there a grander scale upon which happy-making lies are wrong?

The film doesn’t answer the question, only raises it. But a vigorously inventive and smartly aggressive question it is. And merely asking the question in the particular way that it does, and by skewering the particular target that it does, makes this comedy that is genuinely — and delectably — dangerous.

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Thu, Oct 08, 2009 7:37pm

When I saw this two weeks ago, I was blown away by its cleverness and how R. Gervais had managed to express exactly what I think of religion in a way that nobody else had done before.
I’m extremely disappointed to see the poor box office and critical reception the film has received. I’ve always thought that saying someone else is ‘missing the point’ is too arrogant when it comes to films, but in this case I can’t think of any other explanation.
Perhaps this type of humour is too corrosive, too confrontational for a mainstream audience… I hope it will do better in the UK, Europe and Australia.

The Overthinker
The Overthinker
Sun, Oct 11, 2009 1:09pm

I read a review of this on the Brietbart Big Hollywood site (a depressingly right-wing religious site) which led me to see what the Flick Filosopher thinks, since I respect her opinions on movies (largely as she and I usually agree on what movies are good, and she also has interesting insights to offer about them), but do feel they raised a few points that are worth taking a closer look at.

1. Why is a world without lies grey and dull and downright rude? The Big Hollywood review latched onto this dismal portrayal as showing what a world dominated by science, and without God, was like. Needless to say (yet I will say it anyway), this is not true. The truth can be far more uplifting than fantasy (and the idea of only being able to paint what is real as restricting yourself to a dartboard beside a real one is ridiculous). Hands up who loves a good museum (And I don’t mean the Creation Museum). Aren’t those filled with the truth?

1a. Nor does not lying mean telling everyone everything you think. It is possible to use tact and manners, after all….

2. The BH reviewer then goes on to say that love only comes in with lying. Gervais invents God to give expression to love, which cannot exist in a world of cold hard truth. The BH review says, “So what we have here are two worlds. One, without God and controlled by thoughts of evolution, is a spectacularly dreary, unhappy place without love or meaning. On the other hand, even a fictional God brings the world meaning, joy, liberty, and wonder.” Shudder….

Not having actually seen the film, I cannot make any real judgements, but it seems to me that if this is the case, then Gervais (unless he is being more subversive than I realize, and not having seen the film I cannot comment) seems to have missed the opportunity to show the wonder and beauty of truth, and play right into the hands of the fundies, as shown here.

Another point that strikes me about the FF’s review is this comment: “And we begin to understand how beige and boring this world is without the power of human imagination to enliven it.”
Why is imagination connected to lies? This seems to me to represent the most basic, childish levels of imagination – dreaming of fantasies – rather than the more mature imagination which takes what is known and extrapolates from that. A physicist imagining what happens when a star implodes is not in any sense “lying”, surely? Or is this a world that cannot merely not lie, but has no imagination at all to boot? The two should not however be conflated.

Sun, Oct 11, 2009 1:31pm

Nor does not lying mean telling everyone everything you think. It is possible to use tact and manners, after all….

Only if no one asks you a direct question, like “Do you think my new haircut is nice?” On the other hand, perhaps (and I haven’t seen it either), maybe in that world the truthful answer “No” is not perceived as rude. Indeed, the reason why we in our world perceive that answer as “rude” may only be because the respondent is able to lie and flatter us, and so we expect him to do so. The “rudeness” of the negative and truthful answer is then a dissing of us.

From what I have read elsewhere, too, I really want to see this, except that I understand that it degenerates into a effing rom-com, so I shall rent it so I can eject it at that point. Or maybe I should write a book using the premise.

The Overthinker
The Overthinker
Sun, Oct 11, 2009 2:41pm

Well, again, there is always room for tact.
“It’s not perhaps what I would have suggested” for example. But I agree that it would be nice if a simple “No” could be taken as purely that, and not an insult.

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 5:33pm

“Nor does not lying mean telling everyone everything you think. It is possible to use tact and manners, after all….”

***minor SPOILERS maybe…at least some stuff that i wouldnt have wanted to know before seeing the movie*******************************************

the narrator mentions in the beginning of the film that this is a world without lies and deceit. so it’s not simply that everyone must always speak the truth, but also that there can be no effort to conceal the truth, i.e., manners. all manners don’t go out the window, just the ones that govern the do’s and dont’s of polite conversation. and advertising has been stripped of all deceitfulness. this sets up some good gags.

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 6:03pm

As to the poor box office, surely it’s not being marketed as the insightful and subversive movie discussed here. The TV promos I’ve seen make it look like Grinebiter’s “effing rom-com” and it doesn’t appeal to me that way either.

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 9:35pm

Why is imagination connected to lies?

Because imagination is about having the ability to see things that are not. The people in the world of the movie don’t have that skill. It’s not that the movie is saying that “imagination = lies” — it’s saying that there is a power in the ability to think about things that aren’t in front of your face that goes way beyond simple lies.

Or is this a world that cannot merely not lie, but has no imagination at all to boot? The two should not however be conflated.

The two are not conflated. See the film.

The Overthinker
The Overthinker
Tue, Oct 13, 2009 7:50am

The two are not conflated. See the film.

May take a while, assuming it ever gets released on DVD here in Japan.

It’s difficult to discuss the parameters of a fictional world without having experienced (seen) that world, but the question of whether imagination is of necessity tied to the ability to lie is an interesting one. For example, I know that imagination is the ability to see that which is not, but it is also the ability to see that which might be, based on a known set of facts or assumptions. If the people in this movie lack the ability to even see that which is not, then I wonder how that would really work–even documentaries need visualizing, after all. Who first came up with the design for his clothes? I may be overthinking this, but a movie which resorts to putting a painting of a dartboard next to a real one to emphasize the lack of imagination might be overstating the case.

When you say

goes way beyond simple lies

, do you mean that it starts with lies, or is totally distinct from lies? Maybe we’re coming at the concept of “imagination” from two different perspectives (this often happens on the net). I’m not talking about the artist imagination needed to write a novel, for example, but the ability to conceive of alternatives (put simply). And even that may lead to novels – if I can conceive of six different ways my experiment can run, or five different explanations for a historical event, then what is the line dividing that from the ability to create fiction, assuming there is one? A fundamental mindset that Truth is paramount, perhaps?

Anyway, I am starting to ramble. I guess I am just trying to get at why Gervais felt the need to establish a world with no lies as one with no imagination, and I guess to start to understand I must see the film….

Tue, Oct 13, 2009 8:45am

why Gervais felt the need to establish a world with no lies as one with no imagination

How would imagination exist if we couldn’t, you know, *imagine*?

You’re seeing it the wrong way around. The notion is that a world without imagination is a world without lies as well. Our capacity to lie derives from our capacity to imagine, not the other way around.

I’m not sure why you’re so hung up on this. It seems patently obvious to me that the ability to see something that doesn’t exist — whether that’s a fictional story or the extrapolation of a scientific concept — requires that one be able to create a scenario in one’s head that does not exist in front of one’s face.

And I’m not sure why you need a “dividing line” between any of this.

The Overthinker
The Overthinker
Tue, Oct 13, 2009 11:13am

Your reply makes me think we are indeed talking past each other in some respects. Your “patently obvious” thing is indeed patently obvious, but refers, as far as I can see, merely to imagination.

The notion is that a world without imagination is a world without lies as well. Our capacity to lie derives from our capacity to imagine, not the other way around.

If that’s the way it is depicted, then fine. That’s his angle. So let me get this straight: the world in the film is one where imagination is not possible, right? And the lack of lies is what follows on from that. So the main character’s great breakthrough is then to imagine, rather than lie? The reviews, and indeed the title, imply that the important point is lying, however. Is it possible to have imagination without lies? If so, why is there no imagination in this created world?

How would imagination exist if we couldn’t, you know, *imagine*?

But if imagination is merely the precursor to lies, and not lies in itself, then we can have imagination without lies. So why does Gervais equate no lies with no imagination? If indeed his point is about imagination, not lying, then the title sure doesn’t help. But maybe it’s just aiming for some comedy insights.

And regarding the concept of the line I mentioned (and did not claim to actually exist)–could there be some fundamental disconnect between imagining possibilities and creating fiction? I am reminded here of the Thermians in Galaxy Quest….