Ricky Gervais is, if nothing else, a pragmatic person. He was the co-creator and star of The Office on BBC television. The faux documentary skewered the modern workplace and the personalities in it and was savagely funny. He followed it up with Extras, which appeared on HBO and took aim at celebrity-dom and those who inhabit it, along with one man's quest for fame while still maintaining creative integrity. Both shows exhibited a sense of awkward humor in them. Both had a character would say or do something that would unknowingly spit in the face of better judgment, while the viewer would laugh while watching the character try to wriggle out of their predicament. And sadly both were ended at Gervais' request after two seasons.
But for the hilarious television shows and equally hilarious podcasts with writing partner Steven Merchant (not to mention their orange-shaped head having, mouth-breathing engineer Karl Pilkington), Gervais was certainly taking his time in coming over to America to start using his comedic gravitas to full effect. He'd appeared in other shows here and there, but his movie career had essentially been limited to a role in the Christopher Guest ensemble comedy For Your Consideration and as a museum director in both Night at the Museum films. And his first starring role in 2008's Ghost Town had its moments, but all of these films had none of Gervais' voice in them. But in The Invention of Lying, Gervais co-wrote and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson and it serves as his first real foray into American films, on his terms.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, who is a screenwriter for a movie studio. He's in a bit of a rut lately - his most recent blind date, Anna (Jennifer Garner, Alias) don't want anything to do with him, and his films about the 13th century just aren't palatable; who wants to see a film about the Black Plague? - but his larger problem is the world he lives in. Since the dawn of time, nobody has said a lie. Not a little white one, not a bold-faced one. That makes writing films about the Black Plague particularly tough. So when he's fired for his unsuccessful work, it's something that everyone can see coming due to the lack of sugarcoating in the world. His increasing dissatisfaction with how people tell the truth allows him to take advantage of an opportunity to reap a financial windfall at banks and casinos in town. He gets his job back and tells a gloriously fictional story about the 13th century, which delights his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development and irritates his rival (Rob Lowe, The West Wing).
Things are going great for Mark and this lying thing he's got going. But he runs into difficulties with it when his mother (Fionnula Flanagan, The Others) is dying, and he says a few harmless words to put her fears to rest. A rapt medical staff listens to Mark's words and believe that he's an oracle, a prophet sent to tell them what happens after they die, and what the "Man in the Sky" does while they're living as well. Mark doesn't care about the questions being asked, he just wants to comfort his dying mother and perhaps win Anna's attention. The latter part is tougher because while Mark's got lots of money, they're having children would likely result in fat kids with stubby noses.
When seeing the trailers for this before and after it was released, I wasn't sure quite what to expect for it, and was almost disappointed by it, due to Gervais' prodigious talents. And unlike many previews that promise much and deliver on the opposite, this is the exception to the rule. The film was marketed as a romantic comedy, and there are large components of that here, though it's overshadowed by excellent observational humor on religion, along with the possible ramifications of uttering a lie.
The film also does an excellent job in creating the atmosphere of a place that only tells the truth. Gervais (who has written a series of childrens' books to go along with his resume) illustrates the world around him deftly, and putting himself into the position of being the only one capable of telling a lie allows him to experience the same components of comedy found in his previous work also. Garner continues to develop into an excellent dramatic actress, and the small galaxy of comedy actors the film employs (including Tina Fey, Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. among others) helps round out an outstanding cast. Blink and you'll even miss two separate appearances by an Oscar-winning actor.
The Invention of Lying is a brilliantly funny film by arguably the best voice out there today, and addresses issues far larger than you expect coming into it. Moments like that are special and should be treasured, and Gervais' talent makes me look forward to what he can do with future films when given the time to shape them into something more personally desirable. The fact that it was terribly mismarketed shouldn't dissuade you from seeing it and being wowed by what it brings to the table.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner gives The Invention of Lying the 1080p treatment with a VC-1 encode in 1.85:1 widescreen. The results are OK though hardly anything worth writing home about. There are occasional moments when the Massachusetts landscape gets a chance or two to show off, though it doesn't present much background depth and detail you'd expect. Image detail wavers for long portions of the film; sometime I can spot (and was oddly mesmerized) by the freckles on Louis C.K.'s shoulders, other times on shots of one actor, the image looked soft and lifeless, much like its star (zing!). Any improvements over the standard definition disc are presumably marginal and should be considered accordingly.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is largely wasted on the film. There's very little sonic action, and as a result you're left cranking the receiver up to uncertain levels, waiting for a crash or bang to jolt you into turning it down, but it never happens. Nothing in the way of noticeable directional sound activity or effective speaker panning, and the subwoofer stays silent for the run of the film. Don't come here expecting to get blown away by the technical quality of the disc.
The funniest extra in this paltry group is when Karl comes to America to appear as an extra in the film (17:48). If you want to know about Gervais' fascination with Karl, you get a shining example here, as he shares his thoughts about traveling from England, the film business and working with Gervais. Gervais also discusses the concept for the movie here as well. Karl's appearance is for a "dawn of man" sequence that was to appear in the film but was cut. That sequence is here on the disc, with narration by Ian McKellen to boot (6:30). It's funny in parts, but completely understandable why it was cut. Five additional scenes are next (7:12), they include more comic stylings from Guest and Mr. C.K. "A Truly 'Honest' Making-of Featurette" (7:17) allows the cast to share their thoughts on Gervais, his laugh, and the art of "corpsing," when Gervais can't keep a scene together before laughing. A longer reel of corpsing and outtakes follows (5:33). Gervais and Robinson produced four video podcasts (9:59) which show them working and generally goofing around during the production. There's also a digital copy available for download on a second disc, if you're so inclined.
The Invention of Lying is clever, hilarious and according to Gervais, a "high-concept romantic comedy." Its jabs are subtle and its intentions are honorable, and you're left discussing the higher impact of some of its themes when you're done with it. You'll also want to see it again because of some of the quick secondary jokes you might have missed while laughing. Fans of Gervais and for smart comedies should definitely pick this up, and those who want a change of pace in a normally drab genre will appreciate the change of pace.