Making the Grades
Honesty gets a bad rap in The Invention of Lying. It really has very little to do with telling the truth. Instead, it’s defined as a continuous battery of uncensored, nasty comments aimed at everyone else. There is no flattery, no fiction and no deceit in this world, as well as no regard for anyone’s feelings.
Apparently people have learned to live with the maliciousness. In fact, they seem to expect an onslaught of brutal observations about their weight, physical appearance, chances of success and social status. But they aren’t happy.
Among the most miserable is Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais). He has just lost his job at a film studio, realized his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is about to die and been threatened with eviction from his apartment. Going to the bank to draw out the last of his funds, he is suddenly struck with the ability to lie. Since dishonesty doesn’t even have a name in the society where he lives, the bank teller (Ashlie Atkinson) immediately assumes the computer is wrong and hands to Mark the $800 he requested.
Though he doesn’t know what to call it, the unemployed screenwriter is giddy with his newfound power and begins a spree of fibbing (much of which is portrayed in a positive or comedic fashion) that takes advantage of his innocent fellow citizens.
Love is also absent in this town a line of reasoning in the movie that suggests deceit is a big part of successful romantic encounters. People marry and procreate based on finding the best genetic pairing (or as this script also implies, as a means of destroying the happiness of others). Hence, if you are chubby, unsuccessful and snub-nosed like Mark and his friends (Jonah Hill and Louis C.K.), you are destined to be unlucky in love. However, that doesn’t stop Mark from being attracted to the beautiful Anna McDoogle (Jennifer Garner), even after she lets him know exactly how she feels about him on their first date.
The final subjects lumped together as lies by the film’s screenwriters, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, are advertising and religion. In a portrayal that mocks the beliefs of the spiritual community, Mark manufactures what he considers to be his biggest and best mendacity ever. At the bedside of his dying mother, he attempts to relieve her fears about the unknown by "creating" an afterlife. The story spreads like wildfire through the streets and Mark takes on the role of prophet and spiritual leader, as well as consummate swindler.
The concept behind this one-joke comedy is brilliant, yet the execution and editing often feel clunky and contrived. Many of the supporting actors thrive in their roles, including Jennifer Garner as the guileless girlfriend and veteran actor Jeffrey Tambor who plays Mark’s boss. Even as the big man struggles to summon enough gumption to fire his floundering employee, honesty compels him to let Mark know of his upcoming dismissal. Gervais, on the other hand, reverts to the same bumbling, self-indulgent character he plays in Night at the Museum and Ghost Town.
Despite their efforts, the writers seem unable to manipulate the plot enough to make either brutal honesty or unabashed lying look totally attractive. Rather, they sidestep the issue and choose instead to invent a world where restraint is considered dishonest, where faith is deemed to be a fabrication and where one man prospers at the expense of everyone else—including the woman he loves.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Invention of Lying.
Why do the screenwriters appear to equate tact or diplomacy with dishonesty? Does complete honesty mean expressing every thought that comes into a person’s head, even if it is unkind? Do you consider social niceties to be lies?
What does the Coke ad in this film have to say about total truth in advertising? How might marketing campaigns be different if they had to be completely forthright? Would you want to live in a world where fiction (either in books or movies) was not allowed?
Once Mark is able to lie, he can see beyond the outward appearance of people and discover their inner strengths. Does that ability have anything to do with honesty? Or is it more of a perception or sensitivity issue?