Make Up Your Mind is a series where I review movies whose tomato meters are between 40% and 60%. It’s an attempt to find a consensus on how good the movies actually are, because a critical split of 50/50 isn’t helpful. This week, it’s The Invention of Lying (2009), which currently sports a 56%, based on 188 reviews.
The Invention of Lying is a romantic comedy, starring faces like Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, and several others you would recognize. It portrays a wild version of our world in which no one can tell a lie, completely changing how social interactions work. The protagonist then becomes the first, and only person who is capable of telling lies, transforming first his own world, and then the world in general. The film does a good job with this premise alone, but when it has to throw in any sort of plot, it falls into the same tropes as every other 2000’s romantic comedy. The end result is a cute, passable film, with a clever enough twist to set it apart from other like it.
The movie starts with an introduction to our main character, Mark, played by Ricky Gervais. The information we learn is initially told through a date with the main love interest, Jennifer Garner’s character, Anna. We learn he’s in his 40’s, single, and about to get fired from his job as a screenwriter. Anna, on the other hand, is an incredibly attractive and successful executive, very intent on living in luxury. The date itself is actually quite interesting and enjoyable, because of their adherence to the rule of no lies. To me, it feels like a attempt at capturing the famous Annie Hall (1977) scene, where they show the subtext in subtitles, while they’re speaking to each other. However, it’s in a much cheaper, less artistically-deep sort of way, because there’s no real-world interaction to act as a veil. Nonetheless, it managed to get a few laughs out of me, and was a unique way at displaying character, as well as introducing the world we find ourselves in. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this, and the scenes directly following it, are the best parts of the film entirely.
After we see the world through this one interaction, we’re met with the sad reality Mark finds himself in. When he comes into work, he finds that he is indeed fired; that due to his unattractive appearance and lack of funds, Anna won’t be going on another date with him; and that he has been evicted, due to his recent job loss. After all of this happens, he visits his mother in an “old folks home,” as we’re told she’s likely to die soon. I will say that most of this is very typical for this kind of film, but once again, all of these moments have a little bit of spice added in through the truthfulness of society in general. As he’s getting fired, his boss Anthony is showing, verbally, how bad he is with conflict, admitting things that no one would ever do in that scenario. Sometimes it ends in laughs, and other times, it just makes things weird enough to be entertaining.
Finally, when he’s going to withdraw all of his money, close his account, and move out, he does something… The bank’s system is down, so when he’s asked how much money is in his account, he says $800 instead of the $300 in reality. Despite it coming back up, and showing he’s wrong, because no one lies here, she assumes him to be correct, gives him $800, and he knows he’s stumbled upon genius. This transitions to a flurry of things. From wild encounters with friends; such as going to a casino and “winning” thousands of dollars; to just convincing people that he invented the bicycle, he learns how powerful he truly is. Through these scenes, he goes through trial and error, until he seems to find a semi-balance of selfishness and selflessness. Yes, he becomes rich. Yes, he (sort of) gets Anna to like him. But also, he starts doing really nice things for people in need; redistributing money to homeless, solving relationship issues for people, and doing his best to make those who are sad, smile.
Then, in one of these several attempts at being nice, things go off the rails. His mother, he finds, is dying in the hospital, fearing that she will soon be embraced with nothingness. Seeing this dread, he imagines what a perfect afterlife would be, and does his best to tell her that’s what will happen. Because, of course, she will believe him. The thing is, there are other nurses and doctors in the room hearing this, and they go crazy assuming he’s some sort of prophet, until he wakes the next morning to find he’s incredibly famous, and everyone wants more answers. As he’s unable to go back on his word – or maybe even unwilling (it’s not clear) – he does his best to answer everyone’s questions, and at the end of it, that’s the accepted reality by everyone.
After the craziness unfolds within Mark’s life, it abandons most of the direction it’s going in, and hones in on only Mark and Anna’s relationship. While they’re developing the Mark and Anna situation, it turns out she loves him, but can’t accept the idea that her kids will look like him; because he’s not the most attractive man. So, she dates his arch-rival, Brad Kessler (played by Rob Lowe). Through this process, it’s clear that her opinion doesn’t change, and she likes Mark much better, but to both seek her mother’s approval, and through her own vanity, she decides to marry Brad. Mark then gets note of this when she invites him – of course she hands him the invitation the day before the wedding – but he decides not to go; that is, until his best friend, Greg, talks him into it. The final meaningful scene is then the wedding, where, long story short, she ends up with Mark after he protests the wedding itself.
Once it makes the obvious swap in focus, to me, it falls off. While it still holds onto the premise of no lies, I think even the writing here focuses more on character and relationships, and does just the bare-minimum to abide by its promise. For example, a lot of what made the beginning entertaining was not just the fact that they told the truth all the time, but that there was almost no filter to their thoughts as well. However, as things go on, I think that filter develops a little bit, and so we’re left with less hilarity, because it seems there might even be a self-awareness to what’s being said. I could have simply gotten used to it, but I don’t think that’s the case, because it does come back in a few places; notably, everywhere Rob Lowe’s character goes. When he goes on a date with Anna, everything is taken back to the beginning, and people are behaving pretty awfully again. But everywhere else, it’s not seen as much.
It’s quite obvious that, in a film like this, you’re not going to get oscar-level performances, and due to the already-insane world it takes place in, I don’t even know if bad acting would be that noticeable. That being said, I didn’t have any issues with the acting level in this film. It seems pretty par-for-the-course. Similarly, the writing isn’t what you’re going to look at, either; and until it became an uninteresting, pandering romance film, it was also perfectly fine. The main value in this film is going to be how it handles the idea that makes it special, and for about 60% of the movie, it does a fantastic job.
At the end of the day, The Invention of Lying had an interesting idea, handled it well for a majority of the film, and got several laughs out of me. While it fails to conclude in a fun or entertaining way, the hilarity of the first half is enough to put it just past many other mediocre romantic comedies. I will say that, if you despise Ricky Gervais – like many people do – you most likely won’t enjoy the film. He isn’t his crazy self, like he often is, but he’s enough of himself to be annoying to those who don’t like him. In the end, this is the first movie during this series to get a “good” review.