In the underrated Ghost Town (2008), Ricky Gervais occupied a fantasy universe in which he suddenly gained the power to see and speak to dead people, and they in turn helped him win the girl he loved. Now he’s back in The Invention of Lying, in a similar artificial world, only this time the universe is skewed; it’s an alternate reality in which lies were never invented. Everyone speaks the truth all the time, no matter how unpleasant or hurtful, and even the word “truth” doesn’t exist.
That’s a huge canvas, with perhaps too much ground to cover for just one movie. It’s also ripe for some witty satire, but Gervais and his co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson seem to have bitten off more than they can chew, even with some very sharp choppers. Sad sack Mark Bellison (Gervais) suddenly realizes that he can tell a bank clerk that he has more money in his bank account than is really there; she assumes it’s a computer mistake and gives it to him. He eventually becomes powerful and successful, but still can’t get girl he loves (Garner) because of his pudgy, stubby looks; the world hasn’t learned to look beyond the literal to embrace the intangible.
The most startling, dangerous idea is that religion does not exist; that would entail someone telling people about things that can’t be proven and must be taken on faith. In one scene, Mark lies to his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) on her deathbed, telling her all about a wonderful heaven, but he’s overheard, and everyone believes his stories. He becomes a Jesus figure (and even appears dressed as Jesus in one scene), but the movie backs down from anything really savage here. It winds up by spending most of its time solving the romance, which, frankly, just isn’t as interesting. Gervais gets some easy laughs with his usual prickly persona, and he peppers the film with lots of attention-grabbing “guest stars” in small roles. But whereas Ghost Town had the courage to be sweet, Lying swaps courage for sweetness and loses both.