From the usual sources of pre-screening evidence-trailers, blurbs, blog-alicious whatnot-The Invention of Lying seems like a chip off the Jim Carrey film block, with a nutty premise writhing and wriggling its way through gags to a sappy, happy ending. A thumbnail synopsis deals with the upheaval in a mythical place where truth and candor are so ingrained in the people that the words “truth” and “lying” don’t even exist. It’s a place, says the omniscient narrator at story’s beginning, free of “deceit, flattery, or fiction.” Along comes the occasion in which our hapless, schlumpy protagonist (Ricky Gervais) recovers from being fired, spat upon by a would-be lover (Jennifer Garner), and otherwise living the loser’s life when he discovers the power in lies-little white ones and otherwise.
Under the narrative circumstances, we might expect a variation on the Liar Liar theme, but no. This quirky delight, cowritten and codirected by Gervais (from the British The Office), is something else again, a refreshing variation on the comedy genre, blissfully free of many of comedy’s tiring formulas. In part, that means that the comic temperature ranges widely from hot to cool. The material is awash in more subtlety and conceptual cleverness than we expect of a multiplex-release comedy, with less slam-bang punch lines or laugh-out-loud moments for your money. (Although the scene in which our hero reads his quickly fabricated “Sermon on the Mount” decree from the back of Pizza Hut boxes is pee-in-your-pants hilarious).
While the plot’s main through line concerns our man’s half-Machiavellian scheme to win back the love of Garner, a woman both agree are “out of his league,” other surprising sub-themes sneak into the mix, not the least of which is an ambivalent view of religion-as-mass-opiate and the machinations of social power based on superficial attributes. Peppering the casually appealing stew are tangy cameos by a sharp-tongued Tina Fey, Rob Lowe showing his natural gift as a handsome heel, Edward Norton, and former Arrested Development cast members Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor.
It all comes together in a disarmingly fresh, savory, and understated kind of comedy package. Lies never tasted so sweet.