On The Invention of Lying

This was a very good movie, somewhat reminiscent of Groundhog Day in its portrayal of an alternate universe, very much like our own and yet strange beyond belief – I mean this quite literally. In the universe of The Invention of Lying, however, people by nature tell the truth, are incapable of deceit, and fiction of any kind – movies, books, whatever – would be utterly incomprehensible to its inhabitants. It’s an interesting, if obviously impossible premise explored with great humor by the great Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office and the founder of that 80s pop sensation, Seona Dancing.

A lot of jokes work on the simplest of levels, as when Mark Bellison (Gervais) simply tells the bank teller he has more money than he actually does, or tells a beautiful woman that the world will end unless she sleeps with him. The poor naifs believe him, as they must, and we all have a good chuckle. Much worse is when people simply blurt out what they’re thinking; apparently they are as incapable of discretion as they are deceit:

ANNA: I was just masturbating.
MARK: That… makes me think of your vagina.

“Ha ha”, as Nelson Muntz says.

But the movie verges on greatness as Mark tries to use his invention to win the woman he loves. What exactly are the implications of lying for the pursuit of love? If sexual love were pursued without seduction and manipulation, what would it be like? If love seems to require more than seduction and psychological manipulation, why is this? Likewise, if the world of human interactions is entirely truthful, what can we make of the value of honesty? What are we to make of values in relation to honesty; indeed, is it possible to speak of “values” at all? If there are no lies, does truth even exist? If “Truth” casts no shadows, what is the importance of such intangibles as courage or compassion? This complete lack of scale and proportion in these intangibles is perhaps best portrayed by the drab, utilitarian surroundings everywhere; while taking note of the utterly mundane furnishings, the clothes – even the advertisements – I could only think, “Of course!”

The religious and, uh … spiritual dimensions of Mark’s invention are portrayed less satisfactorily, although there are some fine gags. As Mark’s more profound lies about the reality of death and the possibility of an afterlife become the previously unrealized aspirations of everyone, he understands that he can’t simply appear before everyone reading from a script on flimsy paper. They need to be on tablets of some kind, and since granite isn’t readily available, pizza boxes will have to do. When he begins to crack under the strain of this all “spirituality”, newfound success, and lost love (but is it love?), he naturally begins to look like Moses. Or Jesus. A drunken Jesus, maybe, but again we can only say, “Of course!”

The movie points towards romantic love as a new and perhaps higher form of truth as the guarantor of the natural truth that nobody except Mark understands as vulnerable. If the full implication of that isn’t worked out to a higher dramatic purpose, well, it is a romantic comedy we’re watching, and we understand how that has to end. Life isn’t often like this, but who can stop wishing it were?


  1. I didn't see much of the office, although most of the people who enjoyed it were the people it apparently poked fun at, and I almost can't watch him. To his credit, he probably can pull women like that now, and the idea seems ridiculous, but lives with the person he's been with for decades. But I find him difficult to watch.

    I never rated telling the truth that highly in moral terms, honesty was never high on my list of priorities in a relations, and I find the idea that people lie amusing. Other people also suffer from the fact that I cannot tell a lie, although this perhaps applies more to facts than feelings or opinions. But on balance I think people need to know the facts to make choices and because truth is a good (in the sense of an end) in itself. But feelings and opinions can change, and one can not always know one's own feelings or have confidence in one's opinions, and indeed the other person might know the truth better than one, and so a lie is less of a distortion or barrier to knowledge.

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    But what did you make of Seona Dancing?

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Interesting comment, Anon.

    I think enjoyment of the movie actually depends on just that kind of understanding. That honesty is but one value among many, and the elevation of truth-telling to the top of the totem pole, as it were, leads to an unfortunate distortion in all of our lives. I think there is some suggestion that paragons and harridans of this particular virtue (think of reporters making a living following Prince Harry around) are making the world – our world, the real world – a poorer place.

    Happily for all of us, you are neither paragon or harridan.

    I think Gervais is funny as hell because he pokes fun at foibles that, yes, I certainly share with him, as well as a good many other people. If you don't enjoy his humor, maybe it's because you don't share in these foibles. Maybe you are a paragon, if not a harridan, of a different sort.

    And someone that has the courage to go on living after Seona Dancing deserves some kind of respect.

  4. I didn't like that kind of thing in the 80s, less now.

    I heard his selection on Desert Island Discs and liked all the things he chose.

    I have to admit I haven't watched that much of his stuff, but perhaps it's just that he doesn't look like he has much 'calibre'. Although I might have seen that programme and been impressed by his nervousness, so perhaps, all in all, I should reconsider him.

  5. Rufus McCain says

    Can you fix the youtube thing?

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