The Invention of Lying's plot hook sounds like a pileup of Jim Carrey/Tom Shadyac concept comedies. The assumption is that there isn't much crossover between the Liar, Liar and the Ricky Gervais fan base. Gervais' fuzzy parable exists in an alternate universe where nobody has made a word for "truth," because nobody tells anything but — until one man discovers how to say "things that aren't."
That man is Gervais, the auteur of the British version of The Office and cowriter/codirector here. As in that calling-card work, Lying is interested in self-deception as a survival technique. The undressed, undeceptive, utterly honest world is no Eden: flat lighting, earth tones, beige bachelor flops, blank-walled offices, bland daytime barrooms. The lack of ornament extends to this world's idea of entertainment. No lies means no fiction. Moviegoers attend Lecture Films releases, in which actors recite on a historical topic from a TelePrompTer.
Gervais' Mark is a lecture scriptwriter, assigned the unpopular, plague-dreary 13th Century — a job to fit his raw deal of a life. He's single, with a pudgy build and a smushed, porcine nose. On doomed dates with Anna (Jennifer Garner, perkily sadistic), she misses no chance to tell him this is plain bad genes. Truth-telling is compulsive, conquering the most basic acts of self-censoring. A waiter introduces himself with "I'm very embarrassed I work here." A roadside sign advertises "A Cheap Motel for Intercourse With a New Stranger." For a middle-aged also-ran like Mark, who needs all the help he can get, the flatteries and shadowed truths of seduction are impossible. Honesty is so clearly not Mark's best policy that he suddenly, inexplicably snaps, learns to fib his way out of a mess, and keeps going.
The main difference between our world and his — which, we learn, has produced its own Napoleon, industrial revolution, and a familiar Western Massachusetts — is that it's never had any Judeo-Christian tradition. The casual introduction suggests you shouldn't think too hard about the premise's inconsistencies, but maybe the filmmakers should've thought harder. By designing Lying's universe so closely parallel to our own instead of reimagining history on truth serum, they overlook punch lines for the movie's repetitive setup.
Basically a good sort, Mark uses his gift to ameliorate the sting of the matter-of-fact on the meek — nobody here has heard the old "Everything's going to be all right" before, and it's a revelation. In a moment of unction, Mark improvises the comforting idea of heaven, along with a man in the sky making up the guest list. Playing to a more credulous public than Jesus, he doesn't need miracles, and the viral spread of TV news makes him an overnight prophet. Scripture is reenacted as broad farce. Mark delivers his Ten Commandments on pizza boxes; he's resurrected from his depression with Christ-like shag and beard. At times, it feels as if Gervais has made a freethinker lecture film of his own, as two-dimensional in its smug secularism as Bruce Almighty was in its vacation Bible-school pandering.
When the jokes based on universal social ineptitude wear with use, the film remembers unrequited love. Mark fawns for Anna, who wants to want Mark but honestly wants the alpha seed of a predatory Rob Lowe. The presence of Jonah Hill — mercifully tranquilized as a suicidal neighbor — recalls School of Apatow comedy, as does Lying's lesson in looking past surfaces, delivered by the ultimate pairing of a knockout girl and the schlubby mate she's learned to see the beauty in.
Gervais plays schlub beautifully, testing and discarding a dozen ineffective inflections, sweetly suppliant in hurt. As with celebrity-guest-heavy Extras, he has called in favors here — Tina Fey, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton all show up, all wasted as dull foils. Likewise, Lying brushes more big ideas than commonplace comedies but hasn't taken those ideas through enough drafts to work out their implications or — harder still — make them killingly funny.