Ricky Gervais has made a wickedly superior satire. And that's the truth.
Sublimely funny, slyly satirical and deliberately designed to upset Aunt Prissy, "The Invention of Lying" weaves quite a wicked web. Ricky Gervais stars in the film, which he also co-wrote and co-directed, playing Mark, a tubby, snub-nosed loser. Since Mark lives in an alternate reality where fibbing does not exist, folks point out his shortcomings regularly. Not only have people not developed the ability to bend the truth -- they don't censor blunt, insulting thoughts.
On the plus side, advertising is honest: "Pepsi -- for when there isn't Coke." But there are major disadvantages to living in a world where imagination is nonexistent. Physicians are mercilessly candid with bad diagnoses. The film industry has hardly progressed beyond educational slide shows. Mark is a downtrodden screenwriter at a movie studio that produces history talks delivered by seated narrators. Mark is assigned to write about the 13th century, which was pretty dull and depressing, what with the plague and all. The only ray of sun on the horizon is his first date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), whose candid explanation of what she was doing before he knocked launches the film on a tone of breathless hilarity.
On the date, even the waiter remarks that Anna is way out of Mark's league. She likes him but explains she doesn't want pudgy, frog-nosed kids. Mark, whose tough life has taught him to be less cuttingly candid than most, has a rough week, visiting his aged mom at the rest home (frankly titled "A Sad Place for Old Hopeless People") and falling short on his rent after being fired. A stress-induced breakdown in his brain circuitry enables him to convince a credulous bank teller he's entitled to overdraw his account. Soon he's spinning idiotic tall tales as true-life screenplays for his film-studio colleagues. They sound like a 13-year-old's recap of a Michael Bay marathon, and naturally they become all-time blockbusters.
Mark's devious new skill carries the film beyond sharp-tongued verbal wit into a surprisingly daring and sophisticated realm. Being able to deceive everyone, including Anna, gives him a dawning appreciation of sincerity. He begins to discern that truth doesn't consist merely of what's superficially evident. And a reassuring ad-lib he tosses off to comfort his ailing mom races around the globe with huge social-philosophical consequences. The exact nature of his remark should be discovered in the theater. Suffice it to say that it's a wickedly subversive gag that gores the most sacred of cows.
The film has a beguiling self-assurance. It doesn't trip over itself in eagerness to please, but moves like a well-oiled machine. Gervais is confident enough about his jokes and sight gags that he doesn't oversell them. He doesn't need to.