While it never tops the explosive hilarity of its first 20 minutes, "The Invention of Lying" is a smartly written, nicely layered comedy that, like last year's underappreciated "Ghost Town," casts Ricky Gervais as a mild-mannered schlub who manages, in spite of himself, to make the world a better place. Set in a parallel reality where dishonesty doesn't yet exist, the pic works better as a high-concept satire than as a romantic pairing for Gervais and Jennifer Garner. But those 20 minutes, and much of what follows, are simply inspired, portending modest-to-decent biz for this Oct. 2 Warner Bros. release.
Written and directed by Gervais and first-timer Matthew Robinson, the film unfolds in a universe where human beings have never evolved the ability to tell lies, or even fudge the facts a little. From the moment portly Mark Bellison (Gervais) arrives to pick up slim beauty Anna (Garner) for their first date -- whereupon she greets him with a sunny "Hi! I was just masturbating" -- it's clear that Gervais and Robinson have struck comic gold with their conceit of having normal, everyday people casually blurt out every thought that occurs to them, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing.
Embarrassment doesn't seem to have been invented yet, either -- though that doesn't make things easier for Gervais' Mark, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who's forced to swallow the shockingly blunt yet socially acceptable insults (almost always some variation on "You fat loser") hurled at him by his peers. These include an arrogant rival scribe, Brad (a sneering Rob Lowe); sharp-tongued secretary Shelley (Tina Fey); and even Anna, who tells Mark that while she enjoys his company, she doesn't want "chubby, snub-nosed kids."
The early reels are a marvel of sustained comic invention and verbal wit, with a dash of speculative humor that borders on science fiction. Bus ads and building signage offer priceless sight gags (a retirement home bills itself as "a sad place for old hopeless people"), while the movies Mark writes are essentially unvarnished history lessons, read directly to the camera with nary an ounce of Hollywood artifice.
But everything changes, including the pic's tone and momentum, when Mark, fired and broke, catches a lucky break by telling the world's first lie. Shocked by his newfound powers, Mark finds himself the hero of a sort of reverse "Liar Liar," in which his every fabrication is accepted at face value. Before long, Mark is back at work, Anna renews her interest in him and -- in a twist that approaches Capra-esque levels of sentimental lunacy -- he becomes a celebrity with his revelatory, gotta-be-true insights into the nature of God, morality and the afterlife.
Gervais and Robinson are in fascinating satirical territory here, and they stop just short of saying there's no greater lie than the idea that life has any eternal meaning or value. Yet while they offer food for thought, their approach remains disarmingly sweet, breezy and good-humored; even when the pic threatens to turn either serious or sticky, it always has a terrific gag or non sequitur up its sleeve.
The final half-hour, in which Anna tries to decide whether Mark is the one for her, feels belabored and anticlimactic in its deference to romantic-comedy conventions, and the story's internal inconsistencies begin to show. But even the later scenes add a wrinkle to this unexpectedly thoughtful comedy: namely, that our superficial perceptions of reality may, in fact, be very far from the truth.
Gervais' overweight-Everyman shtick shows no sign of getting (ahem) thin, while Garner has touchingly vulnerable moments as a woman who's more in Mark's league than either of them realizes. Louis C.K. offers excellent backup as Mark's best bud, while the supporting cast is an embarrassment of cameo riches, boasting brief, memorable turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Martin Starr and many others. Tech package is bland but sturdy.