The overlooked Ricky Gervais film The Invention of Lying comes out on DVD January 19, and it’s my current pick for thought-provoking comedy. Actually, the trailer makes the film seem much funnier than it is. It’s a sad film that manages a somewhat improbably happy ending despite its central premise.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter living in a world where lying doesn’t exist. Apparently, lying includes any form of self-editing, since the characters feel compelled to tell each other whatever they are currently thinking or feeling: the idea of an unexpressed thought seems to come only to a select few.
Gervais suddenly finds himself able to lie, and the film’s plot plays out the various ramifications of his “genetic mutation.” This is where we get a predictable amount of sophomoric humor, but the film quickly turns on a more serious note when the question of an afterlife is asked and answered.
Like its obvious borrowing from Jonathan Swift’s satiric vision in the fourth voyage of Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver discovers a race of creatures unfamiliar with the concept of untruth, Gervais’ film raises the uncomfortable question of just how much lying each of us engages in on an everyday basis, mostly just to get along with others in a reasonably civilized manner. But, by introducing God as the “big lie,” Gervais also suggests that we prefer comfort over honesty and that truth and love are usually, if not necessarily, mutually exclusive.
How funny or how sad one thinks the film is will be in direct proportion to the extent one shares Gervais’ worldview, but, regardless, watching it exposes a lot of our basic assumptions about how life works, both in this life and the next.