Weirdness hits immediately in “The Invention of Lying.” The film equates the opposite of fibbing as some sort of unfiltered monologue, allowing the bearer of bad news to barf up every last unkind thought they’ve ever owned. That’s not lying. But that’s nitpicking, which is like bringing a gun to this knife fight. A softly considered religious farce, “Lying” is light on the laughs and smothering with its mockery, making for an uneven picture that’s too consumed with its own cleverness to launch a proper satiric sneak attack on the audience.
In an alternate universe, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) lives in a world where everyone tells the truth. It’s usually horrible news, including the revelation that Mark’s dream girl, Anna (Jennifer Garner), won’t embark on a relationship with the sad sack screenwriter due to an obvious genetic mismatch. Fired from his job, lacking a romantic future, and about to lose his mother, Mark discovers he alone can lie, which allows him freedom to do whatever he wants.
Winning over his co-workers and topping his rivals (Rob Lowe), Mark eventually uses his powers of untruth to console his dying mother, inventing a comforting paradise beyond death that catches the attention of the community. Hounding the magic man to learn more about this splendor, Mark devises his own commandments to placate the masses, figuring out a way to pin all the glory and misdeeds of the world on a bearded man in the sky.
Admittedly, it’s a fine concept. Being something of a satiric wizard, it makes sense for Gervais to go after ripe targets of religion. Co-directing and screenwriting with Matthew Robinson, Gervais positions “Lying” as a piss-take on the bible, using Mark as a figure of deception wielding his power to keep the trusting population in line as he builds himself the ultimate lifestyle of power. Hardly fanged, “Lying” is a send-up taking the slow-pitch softball route, leading with Gervais and his stuttery allure as it leisurely maneuvers into place.
While a comedy, “Lying” doesn’t put forth the bellylaughs one might expect from the premise. Gervais and Robinson step back and let the absurdity sink in, with a smattering of worthless celebrity cameos hanging around to wake the film up (Tina Fey, Edward Norton, Christopher Guest, and Jason Bateman are a few that make appearances). If that doesn’t work, well, the filmmakers go broad, turning pizza boxes into Mark’s commandment tablets (shades of Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”) or literally dressing the character up as Jesus in the last act of the story, just to keep every viewer on the same page. It’s meant to be cheeky, but true edge or wit never shows up. Instead, “Lying” hovers a few inches off the ground waiting for something to send it into orbit; Gervais leaves behind an assortment of unrealized ideas centered on a gullible populace receiving an unprepared salvation education that is curiously left unsullied.
Ultimately, “Lying” is about love, with Gervais and Robinson scripting a lazy McConaugheyesque wedding break-up scenario for an ending (cue the Supertramp!), which plays it awfully safe considering the rest of the film has the seeds to noogie organized religion. Of course, the ending would be more deeply felt had the audience been allowed to understand what Mark sees in Anna in the first place (her constant criticism of his looks clouds the intended twinkle), and their relationship, of primary concern to the plot, is a baffling one. It’s all nicely performed by Gervais and Garner, but holds no consequence in the finished film.
“The Invention of Lying” skips around with a rusted blade, swinging it more wildly as the film moves along. It’s more obvious than expected, especially from a sly dog like Gervais, who seems unafraid of the dark on television, yet pulls his punches on the big screen. Oddly, the best moments of the picture are Mark at his most vulnerable (the explanation of paradise scene is stunning), showing a wellspring of dramatic potential in Gervais that’s far more compelling than his comedy these days.