I DON'T KNOW how best to convey my feelings about Ricky Gervais (it's hard, you see, because I might start crying and never stop), except to say that The Office—and, to a lesser extent, Extras—is THE most perfectly constructed piece of art in my favorite artistic medium, television. Not a single comedic or emotional misstep in the whole goddamn thing. Miraculous. Changed the way I think about comedy. AND LIFE. "Hey, Ricky Gervais, breathe into this rag. Why am I wearing a wedding dress? Shhh. Go to sleep." They're like that. My feelings. (Note: I am not actually a kidnapper and rapist! Ha ha!)
So aaanyway, of course I was hoping that The Invention of Lying—Gervais' directorial film debut—would be another masterpiece of impeccable social satire. But it's not. It's also not the wacky romantic comedy that the trailers promise: The Invention of Lying is more of a super-stylized, science-fictional thought experiment.
Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, a below-average joe and the first dishonest man in a world without lies, where "there's no such thing as deceit or flattery or fiction." In a purely credulous society, that power amounts to mind control: Gervais can tell a suicidal neighbor that "everything's going to be okay," and it is; or inform the bank teller that he has a million dollars, and he does. The alternate universe Gervais creates is weird—its citizens don't just exhibit complete honesty, but a complete lack of impulse control. First date banter goes like this: "Hi, you're early. I was just masturbating." "That made me think of your vagina." (Why don't you just NOT say that out loud!?) And courtship turns into balls-out eugenics: "I don't want little fat kids with snub noses."
Of course, Bellison doesn't quite do the right things with his newfound omnipotence: He winds up inventing religion ("there's a man in the sky who watches everything you do" and "everyone gets a mansion after they die"), and gets stuck in the old love-potion quandary (if you trick someone into loving you, does it really count?). The conceit makes for some brilliant moments of literality: a nursing home becomes "A SAD PLACE FOR HOPELESS OLD PEOPLE"; advertising loses all meaning ("Coke: It's very famous" vs. "Pepsi: For when they don't have Coke"). The cast is a who's who of the Best People in America Ever (Louis CK, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, John Hodgman). All of these things are good.
But it doesn't quite come together. You can feel the foreign hands in there, changing Gervais' rhythms a bit—glossing, Hollywoodizing, homogenizing. The sentimental scenes are jarringly mawkish—hard to watch—and the ending is a typical Hollywood romcom failure. He should've stayed in England.