In his TV series Extras and even his brilliant The Office (the British original), Ricky Gervais can wear you down with his fictional alter ego’s garrulous self-exposure, with the difference between how he sees himself and how the world sees him. Yes, he can be amusing—for a while. (So can Larry David’s unflappably obnoxious egotist.) But eventually your cringe muscles start to ache; you wish he could show just a hint of self-awareness. Unexpectedly, though, Gervais has begun to grow on the big screen. He was a fine, harried man—a livelier Topper—in David Koepp’s undersung Ghost Town (he worked beautifully with Greg Kinnear), and he’s remarkably likable in The Invention of Lying, which he wrote and directed with Matthew Robinson. The movie is something rare, a boisterous American comedy with the power to trigger philosophical disputes—even, if taken really seriously, fisticuffs. One can hope!
The film is a broad parable set in a world in which everyone tells the truth and no one lies. The words truth and lie don’t even exist—only “what is” and “what isn’t.” Utopia? Not exactly: Gervais and Robinson immediately home in on the dark side. For this is a harsh, reductive society in which people deride the short and pudgy and poor (like Gervais’s Mark Bellison) and blurt out their attraction to the (allegedly) genetically superior, like Mark’s willowy blind date, Anna (Jennifer Garner). Status envy is right on the surface instead of suppressed: It’s a world without subtext. Now, after enduring sundry rejections and as he’s on the verge of eviction from his apartment, Mark makes an evolutionary leap: A synapse fires (in close-up) and lo, he has the capacity to say What Isn’t. And since no one lies, no one questions his most grandiose whoppers.
The Invention of Lying quickly dispenses with the obvious (gorgeous women as easy pickings) before arriving at its most provocative subject: the birth of religion. For along with lying comes something more altruistic: the impulse to utter what Eugene O’Neill called the “life-lie,” the belief that gives comfort to people without hope. Mark tells his anguished, dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) that she’s not going to cease to exist, she’s going to a better place, and the Word travels. In this absolutely credulous context, Mark’s revelation makes him Moses. The scene in which he reads to the trembling masses his hastily penned manifesto, divulging the existence of “the man in the sky,” is a sublime moment in modern comedy. You have to go back to Monty Python to find its mixture of lofty ideals (among them a form of the Golden Rule) and dim-witted niggling. Yet amid the hilarity are notes of dissonance, drama: If “the man in the sky” inspires hope, he also inspires rage; if the prospect of Heaven gives some people the courage to endure, others think they’ll get there faster by drinking themselves to death.
No question, Gervais and Robinson burlesque doctrine, but their target seems less the religious impulse than the superstitious fables that follow in its wake. After all, they’ve shown that unvarnished social Darwinism leads nowhere very nice, whereas empathy and spirituality are truly adaptive traits. You might even accuse the screenwriters of being overly generous to religion: There’s no trace of the desire to frighten people into obedience or extract their money. However cheeky and blasphemous, this is, at heart, a rather sweet little fable.
Which of course would mean nothing if it weren’t explosively funny. Though playing a caricature, Jennifer Garner proves again (the first time was 13 Going on 30) what a dizzying comedienne she is. She looks as if the wheels in her head are not just turning but falling off and needing to be screwed back on. A parade of star cameos gives the movie fizz. (I won’t spoil the surprises.) Most of all, Gervais transcends his old persona. His Mark knows he’s pudgy and short with a bad nose. But instead of making that the basis for self-ridicule, he uses it to suggest a way out. That’s the movie’s topsy-turvy truth: The invention of lying is the birth of social awareness.
John Krasinski’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s story cycle Brief Interviews With Hideous Men works only in spurts, but when it does, it’s enough to remind us how much deeper our dramatists could drill—and of the magnitude of Wallace’s loss. The movie is a series of interwoven male monologues (among the hideous men: Timothy Hutton, Michael Cerveris, Dominic Cooper, Christopher Meloni, and Krasinski himself), framed onscreen as subjects for a doctoral project by a female student, Sara (Julianne Nicholson), who sets out to research the impact of feminism on the male psyche. (She hatched it after getting dumped—no surprise there.) Krasinski participated in a staged reading of this material at Brown University, and the theater—which both heightens and distances—seems like a better place for it. Sara is a less-than-dynamic center; many of the men’s revelations don’t feel motivated; and with actors in close-up looking straight into the camera, you can’t get away from all the acting.