' Cinema Romantico: The Invention of Lying

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Invention of Lying

If Ricky Gervais is the future of the romantic comedy, and he might be, then it is because the basic structure of his films fits snugly into the genre while still managing to aim just a bit higher and generate some real empathy. His closing line in last year's "Ghost Town", for example, was both well conceived and affecting. "Ghost Town" was high concept but "The Invention of Lying", which Gervais not only stars in but also co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson, has a concept which goes even higher. This fact works for it and against it.

The premise: a world almost exactly like ours save for one caveat - no one lies. Everyone tells the truth. Always. This is established in the skillful, side-splitting opening in which Mark Bellison (Gervais) picks up the striking Anna (Jennifer Garner) for a date and, boy, does she tell it like it is. "I don't find you attractive." At dinner she advises him they are not a good genetic match. She doesn't want fat kids with pig snouts for noses. Mark does not dispute her assessment. In fact, he helps her cause by explanining he doesn't have much money and is probably going to get fired from his job later that week.

This passage brought to mind "Adventures in the Screen Trade" by William Goldman and him discussing how so many movie stars are afraid to play - what he termed - "chicken". They can have flaws but those flaws must be countered simultaneously with either a reason explaining them away or some heroic piece of personality. Gervais, however, is not afraid to play chicken.

Sure enough, he gets fired from his job where he works as a screenwriter of films based on events from certain centuries of the past that are simply read aloud by actors on film. Mark has been saddled with the 13th Century. Not much to go on. He never had a chance. Now that he's been fired he can't afford his rent and so his landlord advises he will be evicted. Mark goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300 to get a moving truck but when the banker advises him the "system is down" and wonders how much he has in his bank account something snaps in the recesses of his brain and....gasp! "Eight hundred dollars." He's told a lie!

At this point the movie could have sunk under the weight of "Bruce Almighty" Syndrome, turning an appealing idea into a stage solely for the star (Jim Carrey in that case) to mug for the camera. Gervais is too bold to fall into that trap. Sure, he helps himself. He pays his rent and takes out a whole lot more money that isn't his and writes a screenplay about dramatic events from the 13th century that never really happened which goes on to be hailed as the greatest screenplay ever written, a fact that does not sit well with the best screenwriter in the business (Rob Lowe, bland, though I suppose that's the point).

But then Mark is summoned to the hospital where his elderly mother is at death's door. "She'll be dead by the end of the day," says the doctor. She is scared. She doesn't want to go into an "eternal nothingness". So desperate to comfort his mother Mark sweetly tells her there is something beyond, that we do go to a better place when we die. Except the hospital staff overhears this wonderful news. They tell everyone they know who tell everyone they know and so on and so forth and soon people are camped out on Mark's lawn and news crews and people watching at home wait round the clock to learn how Mark knows these things and what else he must know.

Eventually Mark emerges and in a masterful scene, clutching pizza boxes with made-up "commandments" he has scribbled, proceeds to tell everyone, in that memorable Gervais-ese, around the world how all is controlled by a "man in the sky." Everything that's good and everything that's bad. "The man in the sky gave me cancer?" asks one. "Yes," says Mark, "but he also cures it." Around and around. Question after question. Imagine, for a moment, the actual Ten Commandments coming to life this way. Wouldn't that explain #10? Picture Ricky Gervais saying it to a restless, inquisitive crowd:

-"You can't covet your neighbor's house."
-"What about his wife?"
-"No. You can't covet his wife either."
-"What about his servants?"
-"No servants. Not the male servant, not the female servant."
-"Can I covet his ox?"
-"You can't covet his ox. Or his donkey. Or his...anything. Anything that's your neighbor's you can't covet. Okay? Can we move on, please?"

Not exactly your typical rom com fare, eh? Yet despite this sometimes brilliant satire the movie stays true to its roots and makes Mark's primary goal to win the girl. The problem? With the movie's high-mindedness in other matters it leaves little room to give us real emotion, the real emotion contained in the aforementioned "Ghost Town", and so when in the third act we end up where so many rom coms do (a fact I'm sure Gervais knows and was trying to play off) we just don't feel it like we should. It's the risk they ran by swinging for the fences.

Yet the good outweighs what little bad there is. In fact, I'm lobbying for confirmation classes in churches around the country to replace that creaky, as-long-as-my-high-school-Spanish-class-felt, Charlton Heston-infused "Ten Commandments" as the movie of choice with "The Invention of Lying" instead. I'm serious. The arc of Jennifer Garner's character is not rooted solely in figuring out which guy she really loves, it's also rooted in coming to terms with the fact that simply blurting out the first thing that pops into your mind does not necessarily constitute real truth.

I've had the Ten Commandments and Heaven and Hell and all that drilled into my head from the time I was very young. Well, do you know what I think a real sin is? Maybe the biggest sin of 'em all?

Lying to yourself.

No comments: