After letting it sink in for a few days, I honestly believe that "The Invention Of Lying" is a more scabrous, despairing portrait of human nature than "Anti-Christ" is.

But, you know... funny.

Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson co-wrote and co-directed this sure-to-polarize satire, so when the riots in the street begin... and they might... you know who to blame.  Go to their houses first.  I'm sure I'll be included on a list of the guilty, though, because I sat there in shock during much of the film's running time, amazed that what I was watching exists.  There is an audacious ugliness to the film that is sort of breathtaking, especially when you realize this isn't some anonymous indie.  This is a Warner Bros. release starring some of the biggest names in comedy on the planet, after all.  And one of the most unflinchingly angry ones I've ever seen.

The premise is deceptively simple:  in a world where lying was never invented, what happens when someone lies for the first time?  In this world, keep in mind, there is nothing that is not literally, almost bluntly true.  No slang.  No fiction.  No subtext.  And, in what suspect will be the most difficult material for some people, no religion.

[more after the jump]

Ricky stars as Mark Bellinger, who makes his living working for Lecture Films as a "screenwriter," although the job's a little different than it would be in our world.  Movies are profoundly altered in a world with no fiction.  Each writer is given a historical period to cover, and your screenplays are basically oral presentations that are delivered by celebrity "readers" like the one played by Christopher Guest in a few scenes.  Since Mark was assigned the 1300s, his films are wildly unpopular lists of people who died from the Black Plague.  His boss (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to fire him.  His receptionist (Tina Fey) not so secretly hates him.  And his dating life is a total shambles until he finally manages to somehow set up a first date with the lovely Anna, played by the lovely Jennifer Garner.

From the moment she answers the door, flushed and frustrated, and says, "I was masturbating," to which he replies, "Well, that makes me think of your vagina," you know you're not in any recognizable landscape.  Their date not only sets up the characters, it also sets up the world and the way it works, and it's good that they ease in like that.  It's so different in so many ways that you almost can't judge the performances at first.  These people have a totally different database of emotional and social responses they're drawing from, so it's like watching a movie about the dental habits of space aliens.  They have a good time on their date, but she's very frank about how she's not interested in him sexually because they would produce "fat, snub-nosed babies," and she can think of nothing worse.

What surprised me most about the film is that it's not really about lying at all.  Sure, that's the hook, but the film is more focused as a satire of conditioning and the way we accept certain societal ideas as "true" simply because we're told to do so.  The storyline involving Anna and what she believes she wants out fo life is the clearest indicator of what the film is really up to, but every single scene or set piece seems to be incredibly focused on the same theme.  Don't believe everything you're told.  Don't accept.  Don't believe the surface of things.  You're not a goddamn robot, programmed by TV and Hollywood and the nightly news and the beauty industry?  Prove it.  While I laughed a lot during the film, many of the biggest laughs are dark, guilty, funny because of painful recognition.  It's a hard mirror to stare into for a few hours, and while the end of the film sort of offers up a conventionally happy ending for mainstream audience, it's just the spoonful of sugar they'll need if they plan to get this medicine down.

The film's a little on the shabby side visually, but I think that's just because Robinson and Gervais are both first time directors, and making it pretty really doesn't seem like it was a priority for them.  Instead, they're more concerned with the cast, making sure that everyone's playing the same reality, whether it's the main characters like Gervais and Garner and Rob Lowe and Louis CK, or guest stars with smaller parts like Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, or Christopher Guest.  There are some surprise appearances in the film, but I won't ruin them for you.  It's obvious Ricky can lure just about anyone he wants to appear in a film these days, and he makes good use of that here.  And when it comes to acting, I don't ever want to hear anyone call Gervais "one-note" or imply that he can only do one thing again.  There's a scene in the middle of the film, when his mother is dying in the hospital, that is one of the finest pieces of acting I've seen from anyone all year.

And in that moment, Mark does something to comfort his mother that shifts the movie into another satirical gear.  He can see how afraid she is of death, and so he tells her what will happen when she dies.  He invents a wonderful afterlife where everyone gets a mansion and all the people you ever loved are all waiting to see you again.  I know Gervais is an atheist, and he's already being attacked by some groups since they're sure they're about to get mocked by his film.  I think the opposite is true... this is one of the most empathetic views of why people need religion I can imagine any atheist might offer.  He understands what it is that people take from religion, whether it be community or solace.  I think what really drives him crazy is when people act like they are only moral or good because religion told them how to be.  So much of our codified morality is simply common sense. Don't kill.  Don't steal.  Don't rape.  Don't pay money to watch Carrot Top.  These are all moral truths, but they should be self-evident.  If you "need" religion to tell you not to rape a child, then you're broken in a way that no church is going to easily fix.  That's what they're railing against here when news of Mark's story about the afterlife gets out, and he's suddenly delivering his very own Sermon on the Mount off the backs of a pair of pizza boxes.  Mark doesn't want to be responsible for the behavior of the rest of the world... he just wanted to make his mother happy in her last few painful minutes on earth.

The film changes direction again in the last third, moving from large-scale social satire to small-scale character drama, and here's where Jennifer Garner really shines.  Aside from Gervais, she does the best work in the movie, and if you don't buy her character arc, you probably won't buy the movie as a whole.  I think she walks a tightrope with this character, and in the end, she manages to pull it off without ever once losing the audience's sympathy, and that is no easy trick in a film like this.

"The Invention Of Lying" may not be an easy, broad, comfort-food comedy, but it was never designed to be.  However, I doubt even Matt Robinson could have known when he started writing the first solo draft of the script precisely what the end result would be.  "The Invention Of Lying" is the smartest comedy of the year, and each and every laugh lands like a punch, bruising even as it entertains.

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