What a fantastic concept. Imagine a world where nobody lies. Now imagine a world where some cheeky bugger – oh, look, it’s Ricky Gervais, who would have thought? – invents the concept of lying, an un-truth. Doesn’t it sound like comic dynamite in the right hands? I mean, humour is always about exploring and subverting social conventions, so removing all the little ‘white lies’ must surely be the stuff of comedy gold? Not so much, it turns out.
Note: This review will probably mention some stuff that might spoil the movie for you – in some small way. We won’t be discussing the ending or such, but there’s a significant tonal shift in the middle you might not want flagged. If you want a quick opinion on the film, here it is: it isn’t worth your time, it doesn’t go anywhere with the concept and insists upon its own brilliance just a tad too much. If you want some reasoning, read on. If not, consider yourself forewarned.
The concept is smart. It’s original. I honestly can’t think of a mainstream comedy that has done something half-as-original in quite some time. The problem with this movie, though, is that it takes this idea and… does next-to-nothing with it. The best it can manage in a world without lies is some one-note stereotyping: women want babies, men want boobies, everyone hates Ricky Gervais. The giggles from the concept quickly disappear when it emerges that every laugh is a variation upon the theme that everyone hates Ricky Gervais. Even his boss, even his co-workers and even his secretary. The best the movie can do with dating is suggest that women don’t care about a guy’s personality (which Ricky’s character has a lot of), but only about his genetic potential (which he doesn’t have a lot of).
You’ll note I’m using the name “Ricky Gervais” to refer to the character. It’s simply because a lot of the core material here is drawn from everything else the guy has done. And it’s really hard not to see the entire movie as a sort of “take that” to a world he clearly believes honestly hates him, but only based on shallow preconceptions. You see, if you looked a bit deeper, you’d see that’s actually a charming outcast who thinks outside the box and simply isn’t appreciated for anything beyond the fact he’s a little bit ugly. And the whole world should recognise that just because he doesn’t look like Brad Pitt he isn’t a total loser.
Except the movie never gives us a reason to think he isn’t. Early in the film, a guy living in his apartment building voices his suicidal thoughts and Gervais just stands there and says nothing, as if this happens every morning (it probably does). Only after he has discovered he can lie does Gervais tell this suicidal individual that he hopes he doesn’t commit suicide. Really? We can only assume that he didn’t mention this before because he honestly didn’t care, and he needed to be able to lie in order to tell this guy that he didn’t want him to suffocate himself. Sure, maybe the end of the conversation, “things’ll get better”, is an untruth (although it’s actually just speculation rather than a lie), but “I hope you don’t commit suicide” seems like a big enough step in a world as callous as the one we’re presented. We can only assume that Gervais’ character didn’t really care that a guy he shared a building with was trying to kill himself, and that’s why he was unable to say anything beforehand. Instead, the movie tries to make us think that this is a huge step forward for the character – he doesn’t actually care if this guy kills himself, but can now fake that he does! Awesome!
You might argue that maybe we’re meant to see the character as flawed, as a broken human being. Unfortunately, the movie suggest sthat we are all as bitter underneath it all. Nobody really cares about anything except themselves. However, I’m not entirely convinced that we’re meant to see the lead character as a particularly flawed human being. Another revealing moment takes place after he has discovered the potential of ‘lying’. He uses it to defraud a bank, forge historical documents and trick a woman into going back to his motel for sex… but somehow actually following through a lying to a woman to get sex is more wrong than anything else you could ever possibly do with lies. It seems an arbitrary and inconsistent line to draw. Particularly when it is perfectly acceptable to lie to a woman to prevent another man getting sex. That just seems inconsistent.
However, arguably the greatest example of the movie’s self-indulgence comes from what becomes its central idea. It turns out that the clever “The Invention of Lying“ bit was just a ruse to trick into attending an hour-and-a-half of Ricky Gervais giving you his own opinion on one particular aspect of modern society. Apparently, religion is invented alongside lying. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Gervais putting that aspect of society in the crosshairs, but he does so to the exclusion of all others. Instead of actually looking what lying might mean socially or politically, we get Gervais delivering the ten commandments on Pizza Hut boxes and the notion of “the man in the sky” spreading like wild fire. We even get the image of Gervais-as-Jesus, though the humour of such a sight is somewhat undermined by how incredibly indulgent the movie has been up to this point – we get the sense the the image may be meant half-seriously.
The problem is that the movie is structured as a rant – not as a stand-up comedian’s take on the subject. There’s barely a bitterness bubbling just below the surface which makes it quite unpleasant to watch. And it isn’t the same sort of anger and bitterness coupled with irreverence which made Brass Eye or Team America such a joy, it’s somehow more genuine and concentrated. There’s no lightness of touch to the material, just forced heavy-handedness. Somewhere Gervais had a bad experience with religion and we’re all paying for it now.
It’s a shame, because the idea is clever. And Gervais has demonstrated his leading-man credentials on both sides of the Atlantic. The problem is that every single part of the movies seems so ridiculously conceited. Exploring the complex social network of lies that we tell each other would seem the ideal material for a comedy. Unfortunately, the movie is more concerned with providing the writers with a platform to air their views and to speak down from on high.