Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying is a high concept film that explores some dark ideas about humanity, specifically the usefulness of deceit in maintaining an orderly and polite society, but ultimately falls back into a comfortably familiar but well-executed romance.
The high concept here is a doozy, and try not to think too hard about it, lest you follow a plot hole through to its conclusion and unravel the whole film. Humanity has never evolved the ability to lie, until Ricky Gervais uses it to get money to pay the rent. The best gags in the film, which admittedly are more of the "gee that's pretty clever" sort than the laugh out loud kind, stem from Gervais and his co-writers exploring what this world would be like. Movies are just taped historical lectures, and advertising is just an earnest plea for you to spend your money on their products. ("Please do not stop buying Coke" "Pepsi: When they don't have Coke.") Casinos inform you when you ask for chips that some of the games are rigged, a fact which does not seem to hurt business.
The most daring conceit of the film is that this world is without religion, until of course, Gervais invents it to console his dying mother. Since no one can understand the idea of someone making something up, everyone believes him and he is hounded for details about The Man in the Sky.
Gervais's character was a middling to poor screenwriter before his revelation, and I like that his inventions showcase that lack of talent. His idea of heaven is a place where everyone has mansions and the best kind of ice cream they can think of, and you get sent to the bad place if you do three bad things. ("So it's like baseball?" one man helpfully asks.) The film wrings some humor out of people hearing of religion for the first time, which may be offensive to some deeply religious people, but was pretty damn funny to me.
The film is less successful when looking at a love in an entirely truthful world. The idea of people telling each other exactly what they think ("You're way out of my league") works for a while, but the idea that romantic love is impossible doesn't seem to fit. Jennifer Garner's character clearly has some feelings for Gervais, but is marrying Rob Lowe's bufoonish jerk because his genes would make for better children. The implication that you have to lie to yourself in order to love someone who isn't attractive is a little uncomfortable and is underdeveloped within the film itself. It makes it a little harder to be glad that the two leads get together at the end.
The acting here is more than fair for a comedy. Gervais does a passable job with the dramatic scenes, and Garner does a good job of putting a blank look on her face. Rob Lowe is disconcertingly believable as a heartless jerk (Not you Sam Seaborn! Tell me it isn't so!) and there are a plethora of cameos by the famous (Philip Seymour Hoffman as a dimwitted bartender) and the funny (Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, John Hodgman and many more.)
Tellingly, the credits use a font(imdb says it is called Windsor)that Woody Allen has been using in his movies for years. The Invention of Lying has the feel of one of Allen's high concept pictures, like The Purple Rose of Cairo. The story reaches simultaneously for the heart and the mind, though it possibly fails to fully engage either. It's the kind of movie where you can see how it might have difficulty finding an audience (it's neither bleak enough for cynics nor sappy enough for romantics) but it really struck a chord for me, and though it won't be one of my favorite movies it is one I will remember fondly. That gets it a 7.3 out of 10