The Invention of Lying

Posted on January 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ricky Gervais has come up with a fresh and enticing premise but — I have to be honest — it is imperfectly executed. It has the gloss of a romantic comedy because it gives us the fun of knowing that the couple will end up together long before they figure it out for themselves. But it also takes on some very big issues and has some surprising insights.

Gervais has imagined a world that looks exactly like ours, except that the people can only tell the concrete, literal truth. That means that they always say exactly what is on their minds, most of which is, to be brutally frank, brutally frank. This is not a crowd you want to ask whether these pants make you look fat.

And so when Mark (Gervais, who also co-wrote and co-directed) goes out on a date with a woman he has had a crush on named Anna (Jennifer Garner), she tells him up front that he is not in her league. He is repeatedly told that he is fat, dull, and unappealing. And then he is fired from his job as a screenwriter. But since fiction is a form of lying, all of this world’s movies are merely footage of people sitting in chairs reading aloud text about historical events. Mark, assigned to the 13th century, is fired because the only thing he can write “movies” about is the black plague.

About to be evicted because he cannot pay the rent, Mark goes to the bank to close out his account and the movie’s title event occurs. He informs the teller that he has more money than the bank’s computers show. And since no lie has ever occurred in this world, the teller believes him. Mark is thrilled with this new power, especially when he discovers he can ease his mother’s passing at what our world would politely call a nursing home but in no-lie world is identified with a sign that reads “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.” She is upset because she does not know what happens after death, so he tells her that she will be in a place where everything is loving and plentiful and she will be reunited with everyone she has loved. She dies in peace and the doctor and nurses who overheard want to know more. And soon Mark’s new ability to imagine gets him his job back and everyone wants to hear all about heaven and the “Man in the Sky.”

Gervais is not as imaginative as a director as he is as a writer but we get to see what a subtle and even moving actor he has become. The flatness of delivery of the no-lie world is a challenge for the cast, including comedian Louis C.K., Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe (looking unnecessarily seedy), Tina Fey, the inescapable Jonah Hill, and John Hodgman, and the talented Nathan Corddry and Christopher Guest are on screen too briefly to make much of an impression. Jennifer Garner is a great pleasure, as always, giving us a chance to see the wistful longing for something she cannot define because it is beyond her ability to conceive.

Amid the jokes (just imagine what soda ads look like in a world without exaggeration and implication) there are some provocative and meaningful insights. Lies are impossible without abstraction and the ability to imagine. And so is fiction. And so is faith. And even love. Without the ability to conceive abstraction, marriage is only about genetic superiority. There is no kindness, no compassion, no real understanding.

Some audience members will be uncomfortable at the suggestion that God is portrayed as a lie but this underestimates the film. While Gervais is an acknowledged atheist, the movie does not have to be seen that way. The emptiness of the lives of the people in a world devoid of anything but the literal truth and the way they are enthralled with the concepts of faith and meaning argue just the opposite. Just because someone lies about something does not change the underlying reality. Watch Gervais’ face as Mark uses his new ability to depart from concrete truth to provide encouragement and inspiration, and enjoy a comedy that may be about the invention of lying but knows how to tell the truth.

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More (and Less) on ‘The Invention of Lying’

Posted on October 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

In Washington DC’s City Paper, Tricia Olszewski cites my fellow-Beliefnet blogger Michele McGinty (who has not seen the film) and me about the surprisingly lukewarm reaction to the anti-religious elements engendered by the Ricky Gervais film “The Invention of Lying.”
I believe the reason that there has been so little objection to the film is that the film is not anti-religion. On the contrary, the alternate universe of the film has no lies but it is also depressingly literal and concrete. There is no fiction, no compassion, no imagination, no faith, no abstraction. No kindness. No love. Marriages are based on genetic compatibility. And as a result, the lives of the characters are empty and without meaning. Even the fictional religion thought up by Gervais’ character to comfort his dying mother has enormous appeal because the citizens of this spiritually impoverished world sense that they need something more to believe in.

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Upcoming Film Searches for God

Posted on September 24, 2009 at 7:43 am

In every corner of the world, there’s one question that can never be definitively answered, yet stirs up equal parts passion, curiosity, self-reflection and often wild imagination: “What is God?” Filmmaker Peter Rodger explores this query in the provocative non-fiction feature “Oh My God.” This visual odyssey travels the globe with a revealing lens examining the idea of God through the minds and eyes of various religions and cultures, everyday people, spiritual leaders and celebrities. His goal: to give the viewer the personal, visceral experience of some kind of reasonable, meaningful definition of one of the highly individual but universal search for meaning and connection with the divine.
Rodger’s quest takes him from the United States to Africa, from the Middle East to the Far East, where such fundamental issues as: “Did God create man or did man create God?, “Is there one God for all religions?” and “If God exists, why does he allow so much suffering?” are explored in candid discussions with the various Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists the filmmaker meets along the way.
“Oh My God ” stars Hugh Jackman, Seal, Ringo Starr, Sir Bob Geldof, Princess Michael of Kent, David Copperfield and Jack Thompson. It opens in November.

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Posted on February 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

The most important moment in Bill Maher’s new documentary about the dangers and hypocrisy of religion is at the conclusion of his visit to a tiny trucker’s chapel. As he does throughout the movie Maher challenges the very notion of faith. One of the worshipers is so offended he walks out. But another explains he had once worshiped Satan and lived a life of carnal pleasures until he found Jesus. Maher of course shakes his head in disbelief that anyone would find that an improvement. But they pray together, or at least Maher stands in a prayer circle and listens as the others pray, thanking God for Maher’s visit, for allowing them to hear the voices of others. And then, as they say goodbye, Maher says, “Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian.”

Maher, the trenchant, provocative, sometimes outrageous stand-up comic turned political commentator, believes weapons of mass destruction have made humanity more powerful than we are wise (no argument there) and that religion, specifically the aspect of religion that relies on faith rather than reason, is more likely to catapult us into destroying ourselves than it is to inspiring us to listen to what Maher would probably not refer to as our better angels. Maher and his sister were raised Catholic by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, going to church every Sunday until it abruptly stopped when he was a young teenager. He continued to believe somewhat half-heartedly, even bargaining with God in a dire circumstance at age 40. But now he is not only a non-believer, he is an evangelical one. He advocates non-belief. One of the most unintentionally amusing elements of the film is how much in structure it resembles Christian testimony. In his own way, he is saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”

Despite his deep commitment to logic and reason (one might say he has a lot of faith in it), Maher never really makes his case. Instead of doing serious and thoughtful research, instead of presenting us with (admittedly less entertaining) data about the influence of particular religious beliefs or institutions, instead of investigating the good works of people inspired by religion or the benefits of faith-based programs, instead of trying to understand the appeal of religious faith, he seeks out the people on the fringes and pretty much makes fun of them. There is certainly plenty to expose in the hypocrisy and virulent influence of various religious groups and practitioners, but he stays away from that for the admittedly more entertaining selection of fringe people and groups. At least he is even-handed. He goes after Christians, Catholics, Scientologists, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews. And he is wide-ranging. He visits (and is escorted off the premises of) the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, and the Holy Land Experience (that’s the theme park in Orlando, Florida, not the Mid-East).

And so the movie works far better as anthropology than argument, just because some of the people and places are fascinating and exotic. But it is filled with cheap shots and low blows. It is easy to make an obvious charlatan who sells himself to his followers as the literal messiah look like a con man. It is easy to make a couple of Orthodox Jews look silly for trying to create inventions to help people comply with the strict limits of Shabbat. And it is easy to try to trap believers with the Bible’s inconsistencies (especially when you have the final edit) about the differences between coincidences and miracles or the relevance of some Biblical references more than 5000 years later. Maher finds a scientist who (unlike 93% of his colleagues) believes in God and another one who says he can prove that religious belief is a neurological disorder.

Of course, Maher is preaching to his choir. Even if he was able to put together a very linear and thoroughly documented argument he would not persuade anyone because faith is not about persuasion. It is always worthwhile to consider challenges to belief because by helping define what we don’t believe we better define what we do believe. The strength and value of our faith is best proved when it is unafraid of heresy.

The film’s message is most that on a sign one character holds: “Don’t believe anyone. Including me.” And Maher is like the assimilated atheistic Jew in a story I heard recently from a rabbi. It seems the Jew sent his son to a school called Trinity because it had an excellent reputation and a secular curriculum. But the son came home and said, “Do you know what Trinity means, Dad? It means the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The father was furious. “Now listen to me, because I want you to remember this. There is just ONE God! And we don’t believe in Him!”

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Creationism vs. Atheism at the Box Office

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 8:32 pm

As the pro-intelligent design film Expelled comes out in DVD this week, the ads crow that it is the top-grossing documentary of the year. But its record has been eclipsed by the anti-religion film Religulous after only two weeks in fewer than half the theaters “Expelled” was shown in.
According to the LA Times:

“Expelled,” hosted by commentator and character actor Ben Stein, opened April 18 at a whopping 1,052 theaters and grossed a total of $7.7 million at the domestic box office during its full run, according to data tracker Box Office Mojo.

That was nothing like the breakout blockbusters “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119.2 million), “March of the Penguins” ($77.4 million) or even “An Inconvenient Truth” ($24.1 million), but nothing to sneeze at either: It was the 12th-highest gross ever for a documentary….

“Religulous,” playing at 568 theaters, is benefiting from positive word of mouth. The controversial documentary, hosted by comedian Maher (“Politically Incorrect”) and directed by Charles (“Borat”), dropped only 35% in its second weekend, compared with the industry average of about 51%. By Monday it had topped $7 million, on pace to surpass $7.7 million by Friday and ultimately to a spot in the all-time top 10 for the documentary genre.
Both are unabashed advocacy films starring popular television figures who have appeared both as comics and commentators. “Expelled” urges schools to add the religiously-based intelligent design theory to biology classes and argues that excluding it is a form of harassment. “Religulous” argues that religion is responsible for anti-intellectual, fundamentalist behavior that is a serious threat to human survival.
Imperfect as these films are, the good news is that there is an audience for this kind of provocative material that challenges assumptions on all sides and gets people talking about faith, science, and politics. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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