The Invention of Lying casts Ricky Gervais as world's first liar

'The Office's' Gervais imagines a world without falsehood

It's true: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying serves as a virtual celebration of untruths by presenting a world in which deceit and falsehood do not exist. As inventions go, the lie proves nearly as significant as fire or the wheel.

Conversation is candid and merciless in Lying's alternate America. In the first scene, pudgy screenwriter Mark Bellison (Gervais) takes gorgeous, successful Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) on a date. Early on she mentions, "I just masturbated." Mark: "That makes me horny. I hope this date ends in sex." Anna: "I don't find you attractive."

Gervais and his co-writer/co-director Matthew Robinson push the premise to fascinating lengths. Advertising, of course, is hilariously blunt: "Coke. It's very famous." Lying's citizens suffer from stunted imaginations, so stores and buildings don't have fanciful names but generic designations. Gervais' mother lives at a rest home called "A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People."

Mark works at the movie studio Lecture Films, but since fiction doesn't exist, hit movies like Napoleon: 1812-1813 consist solely of a tweedy fellow (Christopher Guest) reciting major historical events. Perhaps the cleverest, subtlest detail illustrating the absence of art is the way the walls of Mark's apartment feature a picture of a dartboard alongside a real dartboard.

A mental anomaly blesses Mark with the capacity to say "the thing that is not" (a nod to the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels). Gervais gets to flash his wicked-little-boy smile when he realizes that he can withdraw unlimited funds from the bank or tell a hottie that the world will end if they don't have immediate sex. Mark's conscience prevents him from exploiting people too much, however, and he specializes in telling white lies to comfort the depressed, like his suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill).

When Mark describes a wonderful afterlife to comfort a dying person, he introduces explosive concepts to a world that's never heard of "heaven." Reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian, Mark becomes a kind of prophet for the obstreperous masses. How many mainstream comedies would dare imply that religion is a lie?

The Invention of Lying features funny lines, huge concepts and a veritable parade of amusing cameos, but honestly, it stops short of its potential. Had Gervais worked with a more compelling director like Spike Jonze, The Invention of Lying could have been a stylistic and thematic head-spinner along the lines of Synecdoche, New York. Instead, it's a visual blah beyond the demands of the deliberately dreary social context. Gervais' previous star vehicle, 2008's Ghost Town, had a similar blandness, as well as another narrative arc reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

Disappointingly, The Invention of Lying backs off from its most provocative implications to focus on Mark's relationship with Anna. She balks at pursuing romance, despite their personal connection, because he'd be a poor "genetic match." The idea seems to be that lie-free people have so little imagination they cannot empathize with others, and thus become innately superficial. Though Gervais shows more emotional range and Garner has winningly daffy moments, the rom-com contrivances water down the film's overall premise. The Invention of Lying fires the imagination and inspires more laughter when it explores the idea that lies will set you free.