There are a number of ways to admire The Invention of Lying, but one of them is not as a comedy. Like Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais' previous attempt to move from TV to film, there just aren't a whole lot of laughs in it, and like, well, almost everything Gervais has done, many of the funny moments are centered around how much of a fat loser he is.
That said, the rest of Gervais' latest has some interesting ideas about organized religion, not to mention the difference between social niceties and harsh truth, but as a whole The Invention of Lying is, as it already seems in many ways, an extended sketch from a comedy show that outlasts its entertainment value long before the movie ends.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a supremely unlucky screenwriter in a world where there's no such thing as lying, which means there's no such thing as fiction. Assigned to write stories that took place during the Black Plague, he finds his movies all fail, and he is soon fired. But after losing his job, facing eviction, and enduring repeated rejection from Anna (Jennifer Garner), his dream girl, he inadvertently makes up the world's first lie. When it turns out to be helpful, Mark continues to lie, turning his life and career around. But after a lie he tells to his dying mom gets overheard by the hospital staff, Mark becomes the most important man on earth, and he must decide how many more lies he can tell before it becomes impossible to have a truly happy life.
Again, there are a number of interesting concepts indirectly explored in The Invention of Lying, not the least of which is the suggestion that religion cannot exist without the possibility of lying. But the structure of the film, while wildly uneven and often just bone-dry unfunny, is also remarkably unconventional, and it finds lots of clever ways to avoid the same emotional crescendos as other high-concept (much less low-concept) comedies. For example, there is no point when Anna, the girl Mark loves, ever says "You lied to me," and he has to race to the airport in order to win her back. Also, the movie's most emotional moment comes at its midpoint and manages to be so incredibly powerful that it almost synthesizes the unwieldy dramatic and comedic threads that otherwise sort of diverge from one another throughout the rest of the story.
Gervais is a terrific actor, and a hilarious one as well, but given the themes that recur in his movies, it's hard not to worry about him. Specifically, almost every show or movie he's done involves some aspect of self-loathing, particularly when his character reaches a considerable level of success; Extras seemed like penance for the acclaim he earned doing The Office, and here his character is a miserable bastard—even more so after he turns his life around and lives in prosperity and affluence. It's undeniable that he anchors much of the film's drama with his often heartbreaking performance, but for whatever reason his persona or maybe just his material doesn't seem well suited for the structure of more conventional American comedies.
Still, there are a handful of truly funny moments in the film, although they seem more a product of what the film could have been had its concept been exploited in a slightly broader way. The opening scenes where everyone tells the truth are really kind of excruciating—seriously, is there no way to put things that's even slightly milder than the cruelest and coldest way possible?—but once the film settles into a groove and begins to move past its initial idea, there is entertainment to be found. Ultimately, however, I wished afterward that I could have simply circled the scenes that I liked, watched them, and left the rest. Because The Invention of Lying feels more like a comedy where the jokes are accidental rather than deliberate, and when you've got a guy as funny as Gervais, it seems like you're not being true to his strengths—which may be the point, but why would you want to simply admire something when there's so much enjoyment to be had?