Sunday, March 16, 2014

This recent comedy, co-written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, and starring Gervais, continues to fascinate me. It's a simple concept, and an imperfect film, and yet...
Let's start with the concept. Invention presents a world exactly like our own, except for one thing: The human race has never developed the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth about everything at all times. This goes for both the spoken dialogue (a waiter, assessing Gervais and his date says "She's way out of your league.") and for the world we see in the background (Gervais visits his elderly mother in building labeled "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People").
Needless to say, this one change in human behavior has created other interpersonal and societal changes - most of them seemingly bad. Many of the characters seem a little emotionally flat; others are relentlessly cruel. Though played for laughs - which it gets - this film paints a pretty grim picture of a world without lies.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a sad sack writer for "Lecture Films," a company that produces feature films of people lecturing about historical events. (It's a clever idea; since no one can lie, films produced for entertainment have to be based on real people and events, and can't include any dialogue that isn't 100% historically accurate. Thus, we get Christopher Guest appearing periodically as Nathan Goldfrappe, doing stuffy readings that are sure fire snoozers.) The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when Bellison is fired and faces a personal and financial crisis.
With no job, and his landlord threatening to evict him Bellison has a sort of biological epiphany when he goes to the bank, and, as he later tells his friend Greg (Louis C.K.), "I said something that wasn't," and gets $800 for his rent, rather than the $300 that his account actually contains. Given that no one lies, the teller assumes the discrepancy in numbers must be due to a computer error on the part of the bank. Have a nice day!

Leaving the bank with his rent money in his pocket, Mark realizes what this new development can mean. Then, in a very general sense, the film sets about making the case for lying as a good thing in human interactions. This leads to some memorable and remarkable scenes, all of which somewhat fizzles out in a less than satisfying conclusion.
But the good parts are very good. When Mark gets the word that his mother is dying, and he rushes to see her one last time, he finds her agitated and afraid, fearing the impending "eternity of nothingness." Though crying and upset himself, Mark spins a tale for her of what happens after you die - an afterlife of eternal happiness surrounded by all the people you love, and in a place where "everyone gets a mansion," and there's no pain, only love. These are the last words his mother hears, and she is clearly comforted by them. Of course, Mark's speech is also heard by some of the hospital staff, who are in awe, and want to know how he knows all this. It's a remarkable scene, one that simultaneously makes it clear that religions are based on lies, while at the same time making the case that those lies can be good things when they bring people comfort in times of trouble.
Afterwards, Mark is beset by the press and his fellow citizens, all wanting to know where he got this information. With the pressure on, Mark concocts a story about "the man in the sky" who controls everything, and tries his best to lay out a coherent proto-theology to get people off his back. But every answer he gives only leads to more questions, trapping Mark in the role of the Chosen One whether he likes it or not.
In an attempt to get on with his life, Mark uses his new power to get his job back, and to try and win Anna (Jennifer Garner), the woman of his dreams. But satisfaction with his new life remains elusive.
It's the subplot with Anna where the film is at its weakest. Mark is clearly smitten with her and then some, and near the end of the film he makes an impassioned speech about how she's the loveliest, nicest, kindest woman he's ever met. The only trouble is, as presented in the film up to that point, she has come across as incredibly shallow and vain, rejecting Mark despite his money, fame and intelligence because he doesn't measure up to her standards for looks. (She repeatedly proclaims she doesn't want to have short, fat kids with snub noses - her thumbnail sketch of Mark physically.) So it's hard to see why Mark would be so head over heels in love with such a self-centered and not-very-nice-at-all person.
Also of note on the negative side: This film contains at least half a dozen montages set to peppy (and lousy) pop songs. I can't recall ever seeing a film with so many montages, especially since they're all so similar. I can't say whether it's lazy filmmaking, or the result of pressures to have more songs on the soundtrack, or what. But whatever it is, it just doesn't work.
Still, this film continues to fascinate me. It's a film, it's a philosophy, it's a question. What would life be like without lies? I think few of us would miss the Big Lies, the kind associated with politicians and other questionable characters. But what about the little lies, the white lies, the lies of omission? Are those bad things, or are they a kind of social and emotional lubricant? Yes, this is a silly comedy with a poop joke or two, but it also offers a lot of things to think about. Taken as it is, with its weaknesses and all, I would say it's probably two-thirds of a great film. And since most films would struggle to get to even one-third greatness, I mean that as a compliment.

Clearly the script spoke to a great many creative people, since the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces doing small bits. Rob Lowe is great as a vain romantic rival of Mark's, who has a huge ego and a flat affect. Jeffrey Tambor is very good as Mark's insecure boss. Edward Norton has a nice scene as a tightly-wound motorcycle cop. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Jim the Bartender. Other people taking small parts include Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jonah Hill (inexplicably third-billed) and John Hodgman. 

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