Monday, September 28, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: The Invention of Lying

There seems to have been a mini-golden age for British comedy shows in the last decade; I've gone on about The League of Gentlemen in the past, and I've only just discovered the genius that is Garth Merenghi's Darkplace, to name two. Of course, the two big stars to emerge from this are Simon Pegg and Ricky Gervais, both of whom have had mixed successes in movies--Pegg's starred in two absolute classics, but away from Edgar Wright he actually has a pretty lousy track record. As for Gervais, he's made some forgettable cameos (Night at the Museum? Why, Ricky?!?) and starred in one decent but overly genial movie, Ghost Town. I say "overly genial" because Gervais's TV work, for the lucky three or four of you who have yet to experience it, is known for being dark and cutting and gleefully horrible, and I'm among the many who are deeply worried that Gervais is too eager to neuter himself for Hollywood.

This worry lingered a bit for the first few minutes of "The Invention of Lying", which, as you no doubt know by now, is about a world in which everyone tells the truth, through some unexplained quirk of history (or possibly neurological evolution?) The concept, needless to say, provides tons of comedic fodder which is used to its utmost. The concern came because most of the really nasty stuff, at first, was aimed squarely at Gervais's character Mark Bellison, as he goes on a blind date with Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) and is, naturally, subject to her constant torrent of frankness. Despite her eventual admittance that she had a better time than she expected, she also tells Mark that she won't be going out with him again, because he's just not attractive enough.

This is all quite funny but a little on the fluffy side. It's once Mark goes into work the next day that the movie really starts to flex its muscles and become darkly insightful and imaginative. Mark works as a screenwriter, which in this world is a pretty limiting profession (I'll leave it to you to imagine the details), and given his recent output he's on the verge of losing his job, as his secretary (Tina Fey, in the first of many MANY celebrity cameos) can't help but remind him. His professional archnemesis, Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) gloats over his coming downfall in a hilariously straightforward depiction of office politics (at least there's no backstabbing in this world!). On top of all this, Mark is on the verge of being evicted from his apartment...until an opportunity arises, a couple of neurons click together, and Mark invents the world's first lie. Suddenly, Mark has the means to turn his life around, though even with his newfound power there are bound to be complications.

The whole first half of this movie builds and builds, getting increasingly daring in where it's willing to go for humour. There's one moment where Mark backs away from taking full advantage of his power, which felt a little like Gervais getting cold feet, but it's more than made up for by what comes later. Mark comes up with one big lie, meant with only the best of intentions...and suddenly his whole society is in turmoil, and Mark keeps digging in deeper in an attempt to fix things. Believe me when I say I couldn't *believe* where Gervais was willing to go with the concept, and it's not even hinted at in the trailers. The knives are going to be out for this one, believe me.

I was so busy picking my jaw up off the floor that I didn't really mind when the rest of the movie quickly slipped back into romcom mode and spent the bulk of the remaining time on Mark and Anna's relationship, which does get a little sappy. I do feel like the air is leaking out of the movie throughout the third act (though there are still a couple of great gags), which is disappointing, as I feel like the movie could have been a true classic if it had continued in the direction that it was going. Still--the fact that it went there at all is pretty amazing, and more than justifies the price of the ticket. 2/3rds of a comedy classic are better than none. Also, this movie cures cancer and is made of ice cream.

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