The new film from Ricky The Office Gervais may well be the most subtle subversive comedy of the year. It's not disturbingly crude like, say, Sacha Baron Cohen's over-the-top Bruno. But it may well be the first mainstream atheism-based feature film, and its amusing premise - that lying is not always a bad thing because falsehoods provide hope - is a new twist on the familiar I-can-only-tell-the-truth-now, Liar Liar gag.
The always-funny Gervais, who co-directed the film and co-wrote the script with Matthew Robinson, plays Mark, a loser to pretty much everyone he meets.
He knows he's a loser because in this world, people say exactly what they think, which sounds kind of nice but is really horrific, especially if you are short and slightly chubby and not particularly successful. Mark's date Anna (Jennifer Garner) tells him right up front she's not going to sleep with him because she's out of his league. (She is.) Mark's neighbor (Jonah Hill) responds to a simple "how are you?" with the information that he's planning to kill himself. And at work, where Mark makes exceedingly dull films about the 14th century (because nobody has yet learned to make up stories), his secretary (an underused Tina Fey) tells him casually that she loathes him even before his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) fires him.
But then, desperate to pay his rent, unemployed Mark tells a lie. And suddenly he's lying all over the place, sometimes for personal gain, often to make others feel better. And what really makes people feel better is hearing that they are looked after by a Man in the Sky, who promises that if they're good, they'll go to a wonderful place when they die. Pretty soon people are flocking to hear more from Mark on the subject.
Any movie that so blithely equates the basis of Christianity as the world's greatest lie deserves our immediate attention - how bold can you get? However, one must wonder: Why does this town have a church if it doesn't have a God?
But maybe we're getting too serious. Most audiences will focus on the less-interesting question of whether Mark will persuade Anna he's the one for her despite his presumably poor genetic material. Anna wants to have babies with Mark's nemesis, the taller, better-looking Brad (Rob Lowe). Garner is game enough as her dim-bulb character, but Anna's such a shallow soul she doesn't even seem worth lying to.
The Invention of Lying is jammed - maybe too jammed - with cameos; the script relies a bit too heavily on familiar faces to inject a jolt when the storyline wanes.
It also runs out of steam abruptly, as if there were nowhere else to go, but Gervais' wickedly sly concept lingers quite awhile after the final chuckle. And that's the truth.