Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying tells a fantasy story about a world in which people do not know how to lie. The conceit is that lying is the product of a gene no human had before it suddenly popped up in Gervais’s character, fortysomething failure Mark Bellison. But instead of simply being a cute comedy based on a silly concept, The Invention of Lying is an ambitious, largely unfunny comedy based on a silly concept. It’s not nearly as cute, innocent, or funny as Gervais’s fans might expect,
In fact, it’s really rather dreary. Yet it does have some good points. Although the early scenes in the film, in which we see Mark’s sad, unsuccessful life, are pretty depressing, there as some funny moments after he invents lying. In addition, the philosophy behind the film is sufficiently confused and inconsistent to be more interesting than one might expect.
Before Mark invents lying, no one in the society is truly happy. They speak with brutal honesty toward one another, in particular calling attention to one another’s faults and their own very base desires, and no one seems to mind the situation too much.
However, there’s something more than just truth-telling going on here, as the characters in these early scenes seem like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s no love and no generosity. People’s lives have no meaning, and they don’t look for any. They live for the purpose of advancing the human race genetically, each person trying to find the most genetically superior mate they can catch. Love does not enter into it.
As it happens, the film posits that human beings have no concept of God, and hence do not see any higher purpose in life and have no hope of a life beyond death. This seems part and parcel of the depressing nature of the society depicted in these scenes, though it is difficult to imagine that Gervais intended to make that particular point, given his public statements about the film.
Nonetheless, it is a definite truth that the godless society is unpleasant and uninspired.
After Mark starts lying, things become somewhat interesting–and human kindness begins to make an appearance. Mark’s lies stop a neighbor from committing suicide, help a homeless man get money, bring a troubled couple back together, and give hope to a depressed woman and the occupants of an old people’s home.
Mark then uses his invention to enrich himself, as one might expect. But even that does not bring him happiness, because his real desire, to have the love of beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), remains unfulfilled.
He sets out to become successful at his old job, writing screen documentaries, by telling fanciful stories that are much more interesting and fun than the true-life tales that had been produced thereto. The first big story he invents is a clearly mythical saga combining scifi and other fantasy notions.
Next come the controversial scenes in which Mark invents God and an afterlife. (In the theater at which I watched the film, there were only two other people at the showing, and they walked out during this scene. Obviously they were not expecting the overt stance for atheism in the film.)
What motivates Mark to invent an afterlife is something we’ve seen nothing of to this point: love. His sympathy for his dying mother inspires him to tell her that there is hope beyond death. It’s important to note that neither Mark nor anyone else in the film shows actual evidence of loving another person until this moment, when Mark has already invented lying. The lying gene is strangely connected to the ability to love. As we will see, the key to both is imagination.
Mark is overheard while telling his mother the good news about the next life, and of course people want to hear more. Hope is in the air. So Mark explains further. There is a Good Place where good people go after death, and a Bad Place for the others. He says that doing three bad things will send people to The Bad Place instead of The Good Place. (That, of course, is nothing like what Christianity teaches, although one could see it as a misinformed atheist’s mistaken impression of the faith.)
Under a good deal of sincere but understandably confused questioning by a great crowd of people gathered on his lawn, Mark explains more about the Man in the Sky, the afterlife, and morality, in a scene reminiscent (perhaps too much so) of similar scenes in Monty Python movies.
This is all very difficult for the people to understand, as the early scenes and a park-bench conversation with Anna have established that what people lack most of all in this fictional world is imagination. They cannot see past the surfaces of things.
Soon after his invention of The Man in the Sky, however, people begin to lose their concerns about practical matters and set their thoughts on the next. (Here, too, the difference with Christianity is evident, as Christians are explicitly called to love one another and be good stewards of the blessings given to them in this world.) Their new concern for the next life is manifested in the same way as their previous concerns for this one, however, because they remain selfish and still don’t have love for one another.
Eventually, however, even that changes, as Anna comes to see that a fat little boy tormented by bullies is "so much more than fat little Brian." She starts to imagine what is behind the boy’s dumpy, genetically unattractive surface.
This leads to a very affecting ending, as Anna finally makes a free choice to marry Mark. (The film, despite its odd concept, hews to a traditional romantic comedy structure.)
Yet there is a further irony in this. In reacting to Anna’s choice to marry a more genetically attractive man (Rob Lowe), Mark is given a couple of opportunities, including one at the dramatic climax, to lure her into marrying him regardless of her genetic preference. In particular, she asks him directly whom the Man in the Sky wants her to marry. All Mark will have to do is say yes, and she
will marry him.
Mark refuses to tell her. Like God in dealing with mankind, Mark refrains from forcing or tricking Anna into loving him. She must do so of her own free will, or it has no meaning.
So what we have here are two worlds. One, without God and controlled by thoughts of evolution, is a spectacularly dreary, unhappy place without love or meaning. On the other hand, even a fictional God brings the world meaning, joy, liberty, and wonder.
Thus although Ricky Gervais has publicly said that his film takes an atheist position, it appears that even he cannot imagine a happy, emotionally fulfilling world that does not acknowledge a good many fundamentally religious thoughts, and in particular Christian ones.
–S. T. Karnick