Imagine a world in which nobody has learned how to tell a lie. Imagine the brute candor of everyday interactions. You show off your new baby to a friend and she says, "It looks like a little rat." At work, a colleague confides, "I've always hated you." And the girl of your dreams explains, as nicely as possible, "I'm just too far out of your league."
"The Invention of Lying" harvests so many sharp laughs from its fertile premise, it's too bad the picture slides into gooey platitude at the end. Getting to that point, though, is a lot of fun.
The ingenious Ricky Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson, plays Mark Bellison, an unimposing pudgeball who's accepted the fact that, if truth be told — and in this world it must — he's always going to be a loser. Mark is a screenwriter for a movie studio called Lecture Films. This is a wonderful conception in itself. Since no one can imagine how to make things up, even for art, Lecture's pictures are all historical works of the driest possible sort. In fact, they consist of nothing but actors reading scripted lectures directly to the camera. (Sample film title: "Napoleon: 1812 to 1813.") Mark is unfortunately stuck in the studio's 14th Century Department, and since audiences have proved resistant to lecture-films about the Black Plague, he gets canned. A rival writer, the flamboyantly narcissistic Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), is delighted at this news, and Mark's deadpan receptionist, Shelley (Tina Fey), helpfully ensures that everybody knows about it.
Now jobless, Mark goes to the bank to get some cash. There's very little in his account; but in a world of total truth, he suddenly realizes, that's no drawback. Then he tells the world's first lie.
This lying thing works out really well. Not only is money no longer a problem, but scoring with beautiful women becomes a breeze (in a pretty hilarious way). He's also able to cheer up a despondent coworker (Jonah Hill) simply by telling him that things will get better; eventually, he also invigorates his barfly buddy Greg (Louis C.K.). As his own troubles recede, though, Mark still has to deal with the fact that his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is dying in a local rest home. She's terrified of drifting off into a dark void, so Mark spins another lie.
Here the movie hits its peak of comic invention. The feel-good story Mark invents for his mother is overheard by hospital staffers. Since it couldn't be anything else but true, Mark becomes an instant celebrity, with crowds of people camped out on his doorstep wanting to know more about life after death — they've been beaten down by cold, hard facts, and they're starved for hope. Forced to improvise, Mark invents religion.
Unfortunately, the movie's secondary plot soon moves to the fore. Throughout the film, Mark has longed to win the heart of the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner). But while Anna has slowly come to like Mark, she feels duty-bound to merge her A-list genes with someone as gorgeous as she is. And so the story slumps into the mustiest of clichés: Mark must convince Anna that looks aren't everything.
This is really too bad. The picture has some merry performances — by Gervais, of course, whose squirmy comic persona is always a treat to watch; and especially by Garner, who deploys a lively screwball charm. There's also a raft of cameo appearances, some of them so unexpected that the drop-in stars get laughs just by turning up. And the truth-bomb one-liners in the first half of the movie, assisted by crisp editing, go off like a string of firecrackers.
One can imagine other directions this story might have taken, with knottier complexities. Gervais may be too nice a man to go really dark, but you wish he'd invented an ending as cuttingly funny as all that came before it.
Check out everything we've got on "The Invention of Lying."
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.