Ricky Gervais went about making his way in Hollywood the right way. He refused to appear in Any Old Comedy and stated he was looking to build a long-term career in movies - he wasn't just out to make a quick buck. Of course, all that went out the window when he called so-so supernatural comedy Ghost Town, "One of the best scripts I've ever read," then shopped himself around town in a series of cameos for best friends Ben Stiller and Christopher Guest. Hardly the hard graft he spoke of.
The Invention Of Lying, however, represents Gervais' first movie in the director's chair as well as up front and centre, having co-directed and co-written the story with Matthew Robinson. The resulting movie isn't much better than Ghost Town
, but to be fair, does show that Gervais is far more tolerable when working with his own material.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, another sadsack loser for the collection. The hook, however, is that Bellison lives in a world where truth-telling is compulsive and lying is a concept so abstract, it's never been invented - until he figures it out. The old axiom, 'If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' doesn't apply here; unable to sugar-coat the truth, characters are alarmingly forthright at all times. Jennifer Garner's character sets the tone early when she opens the door to Gervais, her date, and blurts out, "You're early. I was masturbating."
The film itself is an odd mix of the silly and the sincere. The concept, though not quite fully explored, is good for the odd sight gag (witness the Pepsi ad with the tagline, 'For When They Don't Have Coke'). However, the tone lurches from funny to tragic when Bellison's sickly mother (Ms. Hawking from Lost, sci-fi fans) is introduced. From then on, Gervais' script wrestles admirably with a fairly blunt religious metaphor but finds little time for the kind of laughs you might have expected.
To his credit, Gervais handles the more sensitive scenes well - anyone who remembers his "Don't make me redundant" scene from The Office can attest to this - in particular a moving scene at his mother's death-bed. But judging from the way the movie has been sold - a chucklesome riff on Liar Liar - many people might be a little aggrieved to find The Invention Of Lying doesn't exactly mine the concept for comedy gold. Belly laughs are in short supply here; most of the humour is dry and subtle.
As in Ghost Town, Gervais again looks uncomfortable playing the romantic lead. We know as well as him that he's no leading man, but the story insists on pairing him with Garner's statuesque beauty, continually referencing his "short, fat, snub-nosed" looks.
The movie spends so long convincing us the pair are unsuitable you start to believe it, and Garner's character - unable to tell porkies like Gervais - loses some sympathy when its revealed she's almost entirely unable to judge anyone on anything but their looks. Garner, apart from this shortcoming, is delightful; coquettish looks mixed with an acid tongue. Lovely.
Whether or not you enjoy The Invention Of Lying depends entirely on your tolerance for Gervais' patented self-deprecating shtick - the stuttered speech, the faux-outrage, the high-pitched voice, the deflated face, and so on. At times its difficult to tell whether he's even playing a character at all (an opening voiceover, confusingly referencing the credits, might as well be from his DVD commentary).
However, if you can forgive the fact that Gervais is once again playing to type - and the quite intrusive product placement - there is fleeting fun to be had. (Some familiar cameos will raise a smile, too enjoyable to be spoiled here).
Ultimately though, The Invention Of Lying still feels like Gervais stretching his Hollywood legs with a little help from his friends; this is a movie that can afford to have Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman play a barman, features Emmy-winner Tina Fey as an office secretary and has Ed Norton hide behind his aviators as a traffic cop. As mildly amusing as it can be in places, it still won't convince non-fans that Gervais can play anything other than the fool and it's unlikely to set its star on the path to genuine credibility.
Looks like we'll all have to wait until Cemetery Junction to be proved wrong.