I just barely made it through The Invention of Lying (2009). It struck me as a one-joke movie. In the world in which this movie is set, no one can tell a lie. At first, this might sound like a good thing, for when we think about lying, what usually comes to mind are the lies that are immoral, the ones in which you deceive someone for your benefit but at his expense.
But while focusing on these forbidden lies, we sometimes forget about the lies that are permissible, the ones in which there is nothing immoral about telling such a lie, but neither would it be immoral to tell the truth, as when someone asks us a personal question. We may lie to protect our privacy, or we may share that information as we see fit. And then there are the obligatory lies, the lies we tell when being honest would be immoral, as when we lie to keep from hurting someone’s feelings.
The first part of The Invention of Lying emphasizes what life would be like if no one were capable of telling lies that are obligatory. People in this movie go around insulting other people, saying things that are hurtful. Of course, even in a world where lying was impossible, people could still avoid hurting others simply by not saying anything. So, in this parallel universe, people are not only incapable of telling lies, neither are they capable of just keeping their mouths shut. Apparently, there is a compulsive component to this inability to lie. By not telling someone he is fat and has a snub nose, by just not commenting on his looks at all, that is apparently a form of deception itself.
The same can be said for the permissible lies. When Mark (Ricky Gervais) arrives for a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), she just blurts out that she had been masturbating, even though unprompted by any question as to what she had been doing just before she opened the door. So, just as no one can refrain from insulting others by merely saying nothing, neither can they protect their privacy by saying nothing either.
But listening to people insult each other or reveal personal information just wasn’t that funny. And I thought, “I can’t watch much more of this.” But then it turned into a two-joke movie, as could be expected by the title. Presumably, through some kind of genetic mutation, Mark finds he is able to lie. At first, he tells lies of the forbidden kind, as when he lies to the bank teller about how much money he has in his bank account, and then withdrawing more than he really has on deposit.
At this point, it should be noted that in a world where nobody is capable of lying, that does not mean no one is capable of being mistaken, which is to say, people might inadvertently say things that are false. At the very least, the teller at the bank had to conclude that the computer was wrong when it said Mark had less money in his account than he claimed. For this reason, the words “true” and “false” should still be a part of their vocabulary, even if the word “lie” is not.
And yet, the fact that someone might unintentionally say something false, either because he misunderstood what someone else said, or because his memory is faulty, never seems to occur to anyone. Therefore, the people of this world are excessively gullible, believing whatever anyone else tells them. And that leads to the third joke in this movie. When Mark’s mother is dying, it occurs to him to tell her a pious lie, a lie that we tell others for their own good, usually of a religious nature. He tells her that she has an immortal soul that will go to Heaven when she dies, and that she will be with God. He does not, however, use those words. He speaks of the “man in the sky” and a place where everyone will have his own mansion. Whether a pious lie is one that is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory is debatable.
The lie about the mansion is interesting. There have been a lot of conceptions of Heaven throughout the centuries, but I have never before come across one where someone can go into a room by himself and close the door behind him. It’s almost as if a desire to be alone would be some kind of sin. So, this movie gets credit for allowing solitude and privacy to be part of the eternal reward, even if it is a lie.
Word gets out about what he told his mother, and this leads to his becoming the founder of religion. Not merely a religion, mind you, but religion itself. In a world where no one can lie, religion is impossible, and everyone is a de facto atheist. At least, that is the underlying assumption of this movie. But it is too cynical to say that the founders of religions were lying. More likely, they were just delusional.
Because people in this world are gullible, they don’t half-believe in God and Heaven the way most religious people do. Instead, they believe all the way. A lot of people lose all interest in this world, just marking time until they get to live in their mansion. And while the man in the sky gets credit for all the good stuff that happens, he also gets blamed for the bad, for infecting children with AIDS, for example. People pray for God’s cure for God’s disease.
Anna does not want to marry Mark because their children will have half of Mark’s genes, which means they will probably be fat and have snub noses. But she finally realizes that she loves him, which matters more than having genetically superior offspring, and so they get married. The final joke of this movie is that Mark is the one with the superior genes, in particular, the gene that allows one to tell a lie, which is passed on to his chubby, snub-nosed son. As this lying gene spreads through the gene pool, and more and more people start telling lies, the world will become a better place.
When the Production Code was in force, a movie like this would never have made it to the big screen, being regarded as sacrilegious. Once the Production Code came to an end and was replaced by the ratings system, blasphemy in the movies showed up almost as quickly as pornography, starting with Bedazzled in 1967. But while that movie was something of a shock at the time, The Invention of Lying is able to pass as a harmless comedy. If you look for them, you can find religious critics that are offended by this movie, though one senses that they have long since resigned themselves to the secular, unbelieving world in which they must live.