You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Invention of Lying

Film is a smartly written, nicely layered comedy.

Mark Bellison - Ricky Gervais Anna McDoogles - Jennifer Garner Frank - Jonah Hill Greg - Louis C.K. Anthony - Jeffrey Tambor Martha Bellison - Fionnula Flanagan Brad Kessler - Rob Lowe Shelley - Tina Fey

While it never tops the explosive hilarity of its first 20 minutes, “The Invention of Lying” is a smartly written, nicely layered comedy that, like last year’s underappreciated “Ghost Town,” casts Ricky Gervais as a mild-mannered schlub who manages, in spite of himself, to make the world a better place. Set in a parallel reality where dishonesty doesn’t yet exist, the pic works better as a high-concept satire than as a romantic pairing for Gervais and Jennifer Garner. But those 20 minutes, and much of what follows, are simply inspired, portending modest-to-decent biz for this Oct. 2 Warner Bros. release.

Written and directed by Gervais and first-timer Matthew Robinson, the film unfolds in a universe where human beings have never evolved the ability to tell lies, or even fudge the facts a little. From the moment portly Mark Bellison (Gervais) arrives to pick up slim beauty Anna (Garner) for their first date — whereupon she greets him with a sunny “Hi! I was just masturbating” — it’s clear that Gervais and Robinson have struck comic gold with their conceit of having normal, everyday people casually blurt out every thought that occurs to them, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing.

Embarrassment doesn’t seem to have been invented yet, either — though that doesn’t make things easier for Gervais’ Mark, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who’s forced to swallow the shockingly blunt yet socially acceptable insults (almost always some variation on “You fat loser”) hurled at him by his peers. These include an arrogant rival scribe, Brad (a sneering Rob Lowe); sharp-tongued secretary Shelley (Tina Fey); and even Anna, who tells Mark that while she enjoys his company, she doesn’t want “chubby, snub-nosed kids.”

The early reels are a marvel of sustained comic invention and verbal wit, with a dash of speculative humor that borders on science fiction. Bus ads and building signage offer priceless sight gags (a retirement home bills itself as “a sad place for old hopeless people”), while the movies Mark writes are essentially unvarnished history lessons, read directly to the camera with nary an ounce of Hollywood artifice.

But everything changes, including the pic’s tone and momentum, when Mark, fired and broke, catches a lucky break by telling the world’s first lie. Shocked by his newfound powers, Mark finds himself the hero of a sort of reverse “Liar Liar,” in which his every fabrication is accepted at face value. Before long, Mark is back at work, Anna renews her interest in him and — in a twist that approaches Capra-esque levels of sentimental lunacy — he becomes a celebrity with his revelatory, gotta-be-true insights into the nature of God, morality and the afterlife.

Gervais and Robinson are in fascinating satirical territory here, and they stop just short of saying there’s no greater lie than the idea that life has any eternal meaning or value. Yet while they offer food for thought, their approach remains disarmingly sweet, breezy and good-humored; even when the pic threatens to turn either serious or sticky, it always has a terrific gag or non sequitur up its sleeve.

The final half-hour, in which Anna tries to decide whether Mark is the one for her, feels belabored and anticlimactic in its deference to romantic-comedy conventions, and the story’s internal inconsistencies begin to show. But even the later scenes add a wrinkle to this unexpectedly thoughtful comedy: namely, that our superficial perceptions of reality may, in fact, be very far from the truth.

Gervais’ overweight-Everyman shtick shows no sign of getting (ahem) thin, while Garner has touchingly vulnerable moments as a woman who’s more in Mark’s league than either of them realizes. Louis C.K. offers excellent backup as Mark’s best bud, while the supporting cast is an embarrassment of cameo riches, boasting brief, memorable turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Martin Starr and many others. Tech package is bland but sturdy.

Popular on Variety

The Invention of Lying

Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Radar Pictures and Media Rights Capital of a Lynda Obst production. Produced by Lynda Obst, Oly Obst, Ricky Gervais, Dan Lin. Executive producers, Sue Baden-Powell, Ted Field, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Terry Douglas. Directed, written by Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Technicolor prints), Tim Suhrstedt; editor, Chris Gill; music, Tim Atack; music supervisor, Dana DuFine; production designer, Alexander Hammond; art director, Priscilla Elliott; set decorator, Kathleen Rosen; costume designer, Susie DeSanto; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), David Schwartz; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Glenn Freemantle; re-recording mixers, Brendan Nicholson, Richard Street, Mike Prestwood Smith; visual effects supervisor, Thomas Tannenberger; visual effects, Gradient FX; associate producer, Rachel Abarbanell; assistant director, Adam Maxwell Keene; casting, Francine Maisler, Lynn Kressel. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 13, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With: Mark Bellison - Ricky Gervais Anna McDoogles - Jennifer Garner Frank - Jonah Hill Greg - Louis C.K. Anthony - Jeffrey Tambor Martha Bellison - Fionnula Flanagan Brad Kessler - Rob Lowe Shelley - Tina FeyWith: Stephanie March, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Hodgman, Nate Corddry, Jimmi Simpson, Martin Starr, Christopher Guest, Alton Fitzgerald White, Bobby Moynihan, Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton.

More Film

  • Hadley Robinson Amy Poehler

    'Little Women' Actress Hadley Robinson to Star in Amy Poehler's 'Moxie'

    “Utopia” and “Little Women” actress Hadley Robinson has been tapped to star in Amy Poehler’s next directorial effort “Moxie.” Lauren Tsai is also on board to co-star in the Netflix movie. “Moxie” follows a teenage girl (Robinson) from a small town who is inspired by her mother’s Riot Girl past and starts a feminist revolution [...]

  • Samara Weaving

    'G.I. Joe' Spinoff 'Snake Eyes' Adds 'Ready or Not's' Samara Weaving

    Samara Weaving will join Henry Golding in the “G.I. Joe” spinoff, “Snake Eyes.” Haruka Abe, Ursula Corbero, Iko Uwais and Andrew Koji have also boarded the Paramount, Skydance and AllSpark movie. “The Captain” director Robert Schwentke is helming and Brian Goldner is producing. Evan Spiliotopoulos, who wrote “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s [...]

  • The Irishman

    'The Irishman' to Screen at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre

    Netflix’s “The Irishman,” directed by Martin Scorsese, will screen at American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood  for two weeks starting Nov. 1. The screenings, announced Monday, are part of the limited theatrical run for the 209-minute crime drama, which premiered at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27. Netflix will begin streaming “The Irishman” on [...]

  • Critics' Choice Documentary Awards Nominations 2019

    'Biggest Little Farm' Nabs Seven Critics' Choice Documentary Awards Nominations

    “The Biggest Little Farm” leads nominees for the fourth annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, with seven bids, followed by “Apollo 11” and “They Shall Not Grow Old.” “One Child Nation” received five nominations. The winners will be presented their awards at a gala, hosted by Property Brothers’ Jonathan Scott, on Nov. 10 at BRIC in [...]

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

  • Abominable Animated Movie

    Vietnam Pulls DreamWorks' 'Abominable' Over Contested Territorial Claims

    Vietnam has banned DreamWorks Animation’s new co-produced feature “Abominable” from its cinemas due to a scene involving a map that depicts China’s contested territorial claims in the South China Sea. The move comes as U.S. entertainment firms such as the NBA, Disney and gaming firm Activision Blizzard are under intense fire from U.S. fans, activists [...]

  • The Captain

    China Box Office: 'The Captain' Flies to $340 Million After Two Weeks of Release

    Patriotic thriller “The Captain” held on to the top spot at the Chinese box office for the second weekend, again leading from propaganda omnibus “My People, My Country.” “The Captain,” also known as “The Chinese Pilot” earned $34.9 million according to consultancy Artisan Gateway, for a two-week cumulative of $343 million. The cumulative for “People,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content