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'The Invention of Lying'

The truth is that Ricky Gervais' new comedy is too thin in character and plot to carry a feature-length film, not that it doesn't have its moments. There just aren't enough of them.


What to say about British comedian Ricky Gervais' new work, "The Invention of Lying." Ah, yes . . . brilliant really, hmmm . . . sorry, lying.

The film, which stars Gervais and was co-written and co-directed by Gervais with co-conspirator Matthew Robinson, does have its moments -- most of them courtesy of Gervais and his very specific brand of self-deprecating, always equivocating comedy -- just not nearly enough of them.

And then there's the fact that apparently no one realized this was to be an actual movie rather than a 15-minute bit nestled within one of Gervais' routines, which are usually quite brilliant . . . not lying.

Oh, and did I mention the problem with transitions? Those "We can't think of anything to say here" scenes, "so we'll just show you some of the characters moving about at a distance, in soft focus, and set it to music"?

But I digress, and there's far too much of that going on around this film as it is.

"The Invention of Lying" takes place in an alternative universe that looks a lot like ours, except the inhabitants speak only the ugly truth, like "You're a loser, you're fat, you have a pudgy nose, I've hated every minute of the five years I've worked for you." God doesn't exist. Neither does hell, nor lying.

Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, a failed screenwriter who is in the process of being fired. With no money for rent, he's set to be evicted from his very depressing apartment. To top it off he's had a blind date go badly with Anna, the girl of his dreams (played by Jennifer Garner), and his mother is dying.

He stumbles upon the art of lying when he tries to ease Mum's fears about what awaits her -- a beautiful eternity, he says, with a mansion and all her friends nearby. The eavesdropping nurses and doctor (Jason Bateman) want to know more.

Word of Mark's amazing discovery spreads and soon people are camped in front of his apartment house Sermon-on-the-Mount style, along with hordes of media. If you're sensing a biblical theme, you would be correct.

At Anna's urging, Mark agrees to share the good news, telling the masses about the "man in the sky" who controls everything, a wondrous eternity and the 10 rules you have to follow to get there. Those 10 rules just happen to be recorded on two tablets created out of Pizza Hut boxes, so I guess they could have called the film "The Invention of Product Placement" too.

There are always problems when you try to play God or his appointed messenger in the movies; think "Bruce (Jim Carrey in 2003) or Evan (Steve Carell in 2007) Almighty," or George Burns in "Oh, God!" which, let me remind you, spawned the three-quel "Oh, God! You, Devil!" And so it goes for Mark.

Of course before it goes bad, it goes very, very good with the lying making Mark boatloads of money, helping him get his job back and one of those mansions in the here and now. Unfortunately, it still doesn't help him get the girl, which means we've got a long way to go before this movie wraps up.

The conceit of the film -- that the truth, truthfully delivered, makes for an absurd, painful world -- is both its strength and its weakness. It requires the actors to say or react to the most outrageous things with a straight face or the lines simply won't play. So while Garner as Anna can look absolutely guileless as she tells Mark he doesn't begin to have the genetics suitable to father her children, Tina Fey as Mark's very bitter assistant looks as if it's taking every bit of willpower not to roll her eyes or give us a wink to let us know she knows we're all in on the joke.

Ultimately it's the characters who are the joke -- too thin, too vacuous, too unlikable for us to care what happens in the next 30 minutes, much less for the rest of their lives.

Too bad, really, because the truth is Gervais is a very funny guy. The ugly truth is that "The Invention of Lying" isn't -- funny, that is.

If he would just take a little more time on execution the next time he plays "let's make a movie," he might make a great one -- "the man in the sky" willing.



'The Invention of Lying'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, including some sexual material and a drug reference

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release

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