So when Mark (Ricky Gervais, who looks like how you would envision Walter Mitty) arrives at the door of his arranged date, Anna (Jennifer Garner), she flatly tells him that he is out of her league, and she’s not looking forward to going out with him. The same happens at work, when his administrative assistant (Tina Fey), upon hearing he’s fired, says to him, “I never liked you, anyway. You’re a loser.” Comedy as straight-faced put-downs, received matter-of-factly. Even the ads are painfully honest (“Pepsi. When they don’t have Coke.”)
But something happens inside Mark’s head when his elderly mother (whom he calls a “loser,” seemingly in retaliation for all the slurs upon his character) is at the point of death. At first, he tells her what is apparently universally accepted: when you die, that’s it. You’re in the ground, and all is nothingness. But Mark decides, for the first time in history, to lie. He tells his mom that she is going to heaven, where she’ll see everyone she ever loved, and everything will be happy, and she’ll have a mansion. She, of course, believes every word, because no deceit, fantasy, fiction, or personal religious belief has ever been uttered before. (Notice in what category religion is perceived.)
Mark, flabbergasted, soon discovers that everyone believes everything he says, whether it’s true or not. He tells his friends that he invented the bicycle, and they believe him. He tells people what he thinks they want to hear about “The Old Man In The Sky,” and soon he’s holding a press conference trying to answer all their questions. (Yes, the Old Man In The Sky causes both good and evil. And you get three chances to make a mistake without risking losing your own mansion in the sky.) He even makes up Ten Sentences about The Old Man In The Sky, and writes them on pizza boxes (so that he can later be seen in stained glass windows, holding up the pizza boxes like, well, stone tablets).
OK, we get the farce. But what could have been light-hearted (like Monty Python’s “The Search For the Holy Grail”) instead turns really cynical. It’s as if the producers of this film would like to accuse anyone who actually believes any of this silly tripe called religion of being really irrational, idiotic, and pitiable. They’re also trying to establish the idea that romance can happen even between people who aren’t “genetically appropriate” for each other. Thus, a beautiful woman like Anna really could decide to marry a fat, pug-nosed man like Mark, and risk having fat, pug-nosed kids. This feels like Hollywood lampooning its own glamour fetish, but of course with no intention of really doing anything about it other than make fun of it. We still want to look at pretty people, even if they are rotten at the core.
If you enjoy cynical comedy, this may well be your cup of tea. But, especially if you happen to hold dear any personal religious convictions, you’ll have to supply your own sugar. “The Invention Of Lying” comes with its own bitter aftertaste.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.