Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Invention of Lying

The premise of The Invention of Lying is that no one on Earth is able to lie, no one, that is, until Ricky Gervais discovers his ability to do so and exploits it for his own ends, rather in the way Bill Murray exploits his immortality in the world of Groundhog Day. The difference between Groundhog Day and The Invention of Lying however is the difference between Dr Strangelove and Fail Safe - both operate from a similar conceit but one transcends the conceit to become a cinematic masterpiece for the ages and the other, er, doesn’t.
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Apart from the fibbing deficiency, the Earth of The Invention of Lying is very similar, in fact, identical to our own. Ricky Gervais works for a company producing non fiction historical films (lying also extends to pretending so there are no jokes or stories either) until he gets fired for reasons that aren’t particularly clear. It’s also not clear how Napoleon came to exist - they mention a recent film on the Little Corsican’s career - when lying isn’t possible (as I’m sure you’re aware many of Napoleon’s victories were won through deception); in fact it made me wonder how any part of our culture could possibly be remotely similar to the world of the film. Gervais obviously hasn’t read Ray Bradbury’s classic A Sound of Thunder or even watched The Simpsons Season 6 Treehouse of Horror episode. Change one thing in the past and everything changes: if man couldn’t lie from the dawn of time the world would be utterly different.
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The movie is thus philosophically incoherent but its also flat and rather dull. Gervais's character invents a religion and from then on the film plays out like a riff you come up with when you're stoned: Gervais has to think up the 10 Commandments, the afterlife, what God looks like etc. Still none of this would really matter if the film was funny. Unfortunately it isn’t. I didn’t laugh at all but I did smile once when I saw Ed Norton's moustache, which is thin gruel for a comedy. How this picture got successfully pitched and made is baffling to me. How it got any good reviews is less of mystery: insecure critics who don’t understand the nature of satire have seized upon The Invention of Lying as some sort of brilliant atheistic spoof on contemporary mores. Xan Brooks in The Guardian called it “smart, supple, and radical” and if it really is those things, then we as a culture are totally up shit creek. Radical? It seems to me that Gervais is just preaching to the choir. A brave movie would be one that shows, say, Catholicism in a positive light. Actually what I think happened is that in the UK the good reviews were assisted by British reviewers unwilling to knock a (powerful and media savvy) local lad. Outside Blighty I suspect that Gervais’s accent has convinced many poor colonials that he’s somewhat sharper than he really is. (Hugh Grant’s gotten away with this scam for years.)
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And its Gervais himself who is an even bigger problem than the unfunny script or the lazy direction. The reason The Office worked as a BBC TV series was because David Brent was not the person with whom we were supposed to identify. Tim Canterbury was our conduit into that universe and Brent was the anti-hero that we enjoyed squirming at and being horrified by. Since The Office however Gervais has cast himself as the lead in the TV series Extras and in several feature films. Extras didn’t work, not just because it wasn’t that funny or because its brain splittingly obvious central premise (celebrity culture is shallow) was beaten to death by episode 2, but more because Gervais is not a leading actor and his glum or grinning visage (it was always one or the other) grew tiresome.
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What is true of TV is a fortiori applicable to cinema. George Clooney is a good leading man because he has charisma and presence. We like seeing Clooney’s big mug on the silver screen, even when he’s doing that thing that he does where he looks at his shoes trying to fake unhappiness. Actually Clooney is not a good example of what I’m talking about. John Turturro is a better one. Turturro is certainly not a classically handsome guy but he’s terrific on the screen and always watchable, either as a lead or as a scene stealing second banana. Looks aren’t everything. Bette Davis had ‘it’. Joan Crawford had ‘it’. Gene Hackman has ‘it’. Tommy Lee Jones has ‘it’. Gervais lacks ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is that works on film. Gervais though is going to be at our multiplexes for decades to come. He is now rich beyond the dreams of the avarice and he has many influential friends in the business (several of whom make ghastly cameo appearances in The Invention of Lying). And maybe his next film will be better but if he casts himself in the lead and the reviews start mentioning the words “radical” and “smart” sure, feel free to lay down your hard earned bucks but don’t say I didn’t warn you.