Sure to start up a storm of controversy, this film from co-director/co-writer Ricky Gervais is a biting social satire wrapped up in the trappings of a cute little romantic comedy. It pushes boundaries, and is tremendously bold. The story takes place in an alternate realty where lying does not exist. A blind date between the beautiful Anna (cute as a button Jennifer Garner) and schlubby screenplay writer Mark (Ricky Gervais) sets up the premise of the movie nicely.
When he rings the doorbell, she arrives flustered, proclaiming that she has been masturbating. This causes him to blurt out that he is now thinking about her vagina. When they get to the restaurant, a waiter (Martin Starr) greets them with “I’m embarrassed I work here” and later, while delivering a drink, he confesses, ” oh I had a little sip of this.” Mark immediately tells Anna that he has no net worth and will probably be getting fired soon. She informs him that there is no chance of them having a relationship because he has no money, no social stature, and she fears they would have fat children.
The following day, Mark is fired, and on his way out of the office, everyone is sure to let him know how much they disliked him. It is a sad scene of petty and cruel behavior, and it lays the groundwork for the concept that honesty is not always the best policy. The down-on-his-luck, soon to be evicted Mark has a personal Jesus moment when he is at the bank, and realizes that he can just lie about his account balance. The teller naturally believes him, and assumes their computer must have made an error.
After this initial discovery, Mark starts peppering little lies throughout his life, mostly to make people feel better. He tells suicidal Frank (played by Johah Hill) that everything is going to be fine, and that he will meet someone. Because Frank is not even aware of the concept of lying, he takes the statement as absolute truth, and it makes him instantly happy. Mark also tells the people at the nursing home where his mom resides (emblazoned with the words “A sad place for hopeless old people” on the outside of the building) whatever will make them feel better.
When his mother lies on her deathbed, she keeps telling Mark how frightened she is to die, and desperate to ease her suffering, he starts telling her of a beautiful place she is going to live in the afterlife. Some people overhear, and soon crowds are gathering to hear more about Mark’s secret knowledge. Voila, religion is born. Mark starts spinning tales about a “man in the sky” and all the things that “man” wants them to do. Mark lays out commandments, and introduces the concept of hell to convince people to follow the commandments of “the man in the sky”.
Mark is at heart a very good man, and doesn’t see the harm in any of this, because it makes people happy. He saw how peacefully his Mom was able to pass on because she had something to believe in. It’s interesting to posit that lying can be used for good. However, when given the chance to tell one lie that would undoubtedly win over Anna for good, he chooses not to say it, because it isn’t honorable.
Anna and Mark develop a strong friendship throughout the movie, and she must ultimately decide whether she is going to conform to societal expectations and marry a handsome man, or follow her own heart and be with a man who makes her happy. There are some clever jabs at the superficialities we place so much value on in our culture; money, looks, and power.
Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Edward Norton, and Christopher Guest all make delightful appearances. Gervais is very effective in this role, and pulls off a pretty emotional scene convincingly. The jaunty “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO is put to good use during a montage of Gervais spreading happiness around. Other tracks by Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan provided enjoyable music.
It’s a good thing that there is such an interesting theme examined, because this film does not look terribly polished. The first thirty minutes are so riotous that there is nowhere for the movie to go but downhill, but I still found it immensely enjoyable. If they could have kept the momentum of the first third going the whole running time, this would have been one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. A rather predictable ending seems a bit lazy as well.
Ricky Gervais is a self-proclaimed atheist, and he is obviously floating some of his personal beliefs out there in this film. He is definitely not afraid to show that he thinks religion is a bunch of bunk. I’m sure he is going to be castigated by the religious right. That’s a shame because I think Gervais ultimately pleads a good case for religious tolerance.
Sure, he pokes a bit of fun at religion, but it not mean-spirited or condemning like Bill Maher’s smug Religulous was last year. Gervais is basically saying that he doesn’t believe in it, but he understands why others need religion or find it comforting. It doesn’t get much more open minded than that. How about that for the invention of honesty?