The Invention of Lying, a recent comedy starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner, has a unique premise, so it's fitting that it be reviewed from a unique perspective. I am no movie maven — in fact, I likely have less expertise in the genre than most of the American population. But what I am is a theologian (or rather, a theologian-in-training), and that expertise made this movie one I can't resist talking about. [Note: Spoilers follow. –Ed]
Ricky Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, a rather unremarkable man in a remarkable world. The society in which Mark lives is, quite simply, one where no one has ever learned to lie. It's not that they've chosen to always tell the truth — the ability to do otherwise has never been imagined or developed, ever. As a result, a world that looks at first glance just like ours — down to the same technology and brands — is in fact a world with no fiction, no religion, no pretense, no imagination at all. Empathy is, at best, a vague concept, and it stops no one from saying what they think anyway; there is not only no politeness, but also no filter, so a person is just as likely to comment on someone's hideous choice of clothing as to divulge their own erectile dysfunction. This world does require some willing suspension of disbelief, but this comes easily to an audience who find themselves preoccupied with comparing the painfully hilarious conversations between characters to their own nuanced methods of communication.
Mark, through a random and unexpected evolution, suddenly finds himself the only person on earth who can lie — and, as no one else can but take his word as utter truth, he soon realizes that this ability is nothing less than a superpower. Yet in a wrenching attempt to use his powers for good, he paints a poignant, if endearingly childish, idea of heaven for his despairing, dying mother. Though she dies happy, as he'd hoped, the nurses who overhear naturally take his words as dogma (bad theology pun intended) and spread word of the man who knows something new about what happens after death. Mark's unintentional career as a prophet begins as he tries to use his ability to make everyone happy, imagining for them a vague religion based around the "Man in the Sky" who created everything, controls everything, and determines who is worthy of spending eternity in a mansion after they die.
The theologian in me found the depth demonstrated here to be exactly why the movie works. With no precedent, Mark is attempting to construct a religion from scratch — and the questions with which his newfound disciples confront him with are those that theologians of many faiths have been wrestling with for millennia: "How do we know the difference between good and bad? How can a Man in the Sky who loves us also allow disasters to happen? How many good things does a person have to do to make up for all the wrongs they've done?" In fact, the only question that they can't think to ask is the one most prevalent in Western culture: How do we know someone didn't just make this all up?
The movie doesn't try to solve these questions, nor do I think it should — instead it focuses on Mark's individual quest to do what is right and honest, judging by a scale he alone understands. And, paradoxically, that quest is exactly what most theology comes down to: doing your best with what you know. Of course, those of us in the real world have a distinct advantage in that department, emerging from centuries of philosophy, ethics, and religious dialogue. Those of us with religion and religious communities get the dual benefit of learning from the wisdom passed down to us from centuries of profound thinkers and a present group of companions with whom we can relate, mutually encourage, and use as sounding boards when we look to answer these questions in our own lives.
But The Invention of Lying is by no means a preachy, pretentious, religious or even vindictive commentary — it's an amusing comedy with a distinctive premise, a fun story that satirizes modern religion without being offensive. The actors are honest (they can't help it!) and sweet, and cameos by Rob Lowe, Tiny Fey, Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, and Jeffrey Tambor keep the tone light. Like Liar, Liar, this film is about finding a balance between truth and dishonesty, and between what you want and who you love. Theologian, lay, religious, secular, or somewhere in between, people of all perspectives will likely find this movie to be worth a viewing.