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The Invention of Lying lies about lying

05 October 2009

Until now, Ricky Gervais hasn't been one to do himself down. However, he admits that his co-directing debut hasn't been wholly successful. Unfortunately, the critics seem to agree, and it's true that The Invention of Lying will win no Oscars for acting or direction. All the same, in this age of threadbare film-making, an original concept that actually makes you think is a rare thing. This is what Reading's genius has delivered. And in Between the Lines's book, that's enough to render his inaugural opus the five-star film of the year.

Truth, like motherhood, Joanna Lumley and the NHS, is one of those things that's sacrosanct. Honesty, we tell each other, our children and ourselves, is a non-negotiable virtue. It's not just that you wouldn't diss it; you wouldn't imagine that anyone could. Yet Gervais and his US co-writer, Matthew Robinson, have put it through the wringer.

By envisaging a world in which only truth is told, they demonstrate that we all lie all the time. What's more, they show that life would be hell if we didn't. Politeness, compassion and human decency would go by the board. Working, romantic and informal relationships would fall to pieces.

The film's hints that lying might be beneficial have provoked a bit of discussion. Most commentators seem to have concluded that a bit of deception's acceptable, so long as it's in a good cause. It's OK to suggest that Father Christmas brought your kid's new BMX, that your beloved's bottom doesn't look big in that, or that the reason you're crying off coming to dinner is that you've got a migraine. Maybe it's even OK for an atheist to tell his dying mum that she's going to heaven, as does Gervais's character, Mark. On the other hand, shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre because you like having a laugh remains well out of order.

Unfortunately, this won't do. If virtuous intent lets a liar off the hook, our ethical universe is transformed. Critics of the Iraq war thought the charge that "Bliar" had lied was a knockout blow. Suppose, however, you were a PM who believed that the public good urgently required an invasion. If a fib about WMD might help you on your way, should you cheerily tell it? Most of us can think up some kind of justification for almost anything we do. That's why, in theory at least, our demand for honesty is absolute.

As a rule, Hollywood avoids subverting conventional morality. This isn't just to avoid upsetting the powerful, but because audiences seem to like it. So perhaps it's not surprising that The Invention of Lying's initial challenge to truthfulness is first abandoned and then reversed.

Mark's getting the cold shoulder from the girl of his dreams. Lying could get him into her pants. In the real world, we all know what he'd do, quite possibly to the ultimate benefit of both parties. A romcom hero, however, must assert the values we suppose ourselves to esteem. So Mark comes over all George Washington. He cannot win a woman's heart by deception. Somehow, it just wouldn't be right.

It's not enough, however, that Mark should opt for the path of virtue. We must also be told that virtue's always rewarded. Once he's admitted that he's no more than a penniless loser, Mark nonetheless gets the girl. Gorgeous women, apparently, don't really want men who're rich, clever, charming and good-looking. What they're really after is chubby no-hopers who happen to be honest.

The film thus tells a big lie of its own. It denies the truth it's so effectively conveyed that lying, much of the time, is a pretty good idea. The intentions behind this deception, like those begetting so many of humanity's other porkies, are partly good and partly dubious. Gervais wants to cheer us up. He also wants to put bums on seats and thereby get himself another Hollywood directing gig.

As it turns out, Mark's romantic triumph is utterly unconvincing. Thus, the film disproves its own official message. The Invention of Lying therefore becomes a very welcome vote of thanks for the invention of lying.

Source: Guardian Online