Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The truth hurts

The concept is much bigger than the advent of lying. In the universe posited by The Invention of Lying (2009), everyone volunteers the absolute palpable truth. Not only is there no lying, there is no concealment whatsoever. Moreover, there is no metaphysics or spirituality, since none of those ideas can be stated as physical facts.

Ricky Gervais first became known first as a creator (of The Office and Extras) and then as a performer whose bumbling persona was as useful to other filmmakers (Ghost Town, A Night at the Museum, For Your Consideration) as it has been for his own material. So it is gratifying to see him finally step out as a writer-director of a feature, and one with such a good, strong, rich idea, that the moment I heard the concept of the film, I began whacking myself in the head with a 2 x 4 for not having thought of it myself.

In fact, the only criticism I have to make of this laugh-out-loud film is that the idea is so enormous, it really should be the basis of a series of films or a miniseries. In this case, the use of lying is limited to personal relationships and the invention of religious belief. But really, would capitalism be possible without an unequal access to true information? Or politics, diplomacy, or even the very existence of separate nations? Can one imagine an arms negotiator arriving for a conference obliged to speak complete truth at all times--the whole concept of nations dealing with each other falls apart on contact when only truth is permitted.

I suppose the film is controversial to some because the occasion for the first lie engenders a notion of the afterlife heretofore unknown in the non-lying universe. But to me the film does not attack religion so much as the superficial reasons SOME people cling to it--namely a magical wish for immortality or for a fairy-tale afterlife. Even Christians who are honest about what the Bible truly says must admit that the actual nature of the afterlife is left unstated and that we have to be uncertain--the only thing promised believers is to live with God, and that others must remain separated from him. The meetings with relatives and sunshine and lollipops has nothing to do with Bible religion and everything to do with most people's paralyzing fear of the unknown. (St. Paul even denies that married couples are reunited after death--so there.)

The other absurdity is that in this world of mere fact--no legend, no myth, no super-truths--Gervais's character, who sees to be inventing the very notion of morality, is required to come up with hard and fast rules for behavior and for the earning of eternal life. He suggests everyone is entitled to two bad acts before they are condemned and immediately comes up against the problem of defining a bad act--where does one draw the line? And Ricky Gervais has just the right persona to wrestle with this (although I could also imagine Bob Newhart having trouble working this out). The big question which is merely implicated is that if you can't figure out what's bad and decide to be good for its own sake, without regard to reward or punishment in the afterlife, then morality is just a child's code of behavior.

Other reason to see this film is the ridiculous number of funny and/or prominent people in it--besides Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis CK and Rob Lowe, there's Jonah Hill, Christopher Guest, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Stephen Merchant, John Hodgman, Edward Norton...well, it just gets ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the film was required to cut short its most complex possibilities in order to resolve the romantic comedy, which is what most people plonk their money down for. Hell, they could do an entire feature set in either DC or Hollywood, where lying is the principal industry!

Speaking of lies, you couldn't build an efficient and entertaining little potboiler like A Perfect Getaway (2009) in a universe without lies. It breaks no new cinematic ground and it has a single plot twist which I guessed about 20 minutes in, because the story had left no room for any other twists. But if you are going to do a four-character suspense piece, you better cast it well, and it is always a pleasure to watch Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich do their stuff. But the film's secret weapon is the continually versatile and surprising Timothy Olyphant. It can only be a few more months before this man is not ordained a True Movie Star. (If you doubt me, check out Deadwood.)

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