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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There's a question I've been asked multiple times over the years: Can you like a movie that you don't agree with? My answer is yes. I believe it's possible to appreciate the skill or execution of a film, even if its exact message is not something I would necessarily embrace. Case in point: The Invention of Lying. Warner Brothers Pictures has done a masterful job of concealing the fact that this new comedy is actually a religious satire. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which maintains its own movie rating website, has described The Invention of Lying as "an all-out, sneering assault on the foundations of religious faith, such as has seldom if ever been seen in a mainstream film." Due to the "pervasive blasphemy," the USCCB has also slapped it with their most severe "O" rating, which signifies a movie is "morally offensive." Harsh language, yes? As a person of faith, I think the point of the story is not particularly well taken; it glosses over the valuable role that faith has played - and continues to play - in the lives of many. At the same time, it is a well-written and -acted picture that very effectively uses humor to present its ideas.

The story takes place in an alternate universe where everyone tells the truth, all the time. Deceit simply does not exist. Co-writer/co-director Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful screenwriter. Of course, since there's no fiction in this world, movies consist solely of regal-looking narrators relating historical events to the camera. When he's fired from his job and nearly evicted from his apartment, Mark is desperate. A synapse in his brain snaps while at the bank, allowing him to tell the world's first lie - one that results in him withdrawing $800 when, in fact, he only has $300 in his account. Mark is amazed by his new ability and figures he can use it to take down his rival, Brad (Rob Lowe), and his former secretary (Tina Fey), while also winning the love of Anna (Jennifer Garner), the girl he's been trying unsuccessfully to woo.

The lying comes to a head when Mark visits his dying mother in a nursing home (or, as the sign on the building honestly states, a "sad, depressing place for old people.") Mrs. Bellison (Fionnula Flanagan) despairs dying and entering a state of eternal nothingness. Unable to watch her suffer and worry, Mark tells her that you do go somewhere after you die, and it's a place where there's no pain and everyone you ever loved is there waiting for you. The doctors overhear this and run to the media. Before long, reporters and curious people are gathered outside the door to Mark's home wanting to know more. Mark embellishes his story further, claiming that there is a "man in the sky" who controls everything and is responsible for every good or bad thing that happens. This leads to a lot of confusion, as Mark's followers don't understand why the man in the sky could alternate between giving them blessings and curses. Mark, despite having made up the story in the first place, is at a loss for what to tell them.

Can it be that a major motion picture studio has released a star-studded movie that is patently blasphemous, as the USCCB claims? Well, I don't know. The Invention of Lying certainly uses comedy to take jabs at faith, and Gervais has acknowledged being an atheist. He has also publicly stated (to Entertainment Weekly magazine) that he didn't intend for the film to be "atheist propaganda." His movie doesn't really mock the faithful; the characters try to be good to one another and do the right thing, as does Mark, who tries to help a suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill). I can see where some people will take great offense to any story that dares to suggest that God doesn't really exist, or that faith in a higher power is an exercise in futility. That Mark at one point stands holding a couple of pizza boxes just as Moses held stone tablets may even cause some walkouts.

Personally, I felt that the movie was not so much about ridiculing faith as it was about an age-old question that religious leaders of all types have tried to answer: How can a benevolent God allow horrible things to happen? I've heard popes and priests and theologians tackle that one, and some of their ideas have been intriguing and even sensible. In the case of The Invention of Lying, the people who hear Mark's lie are grappling with how to reconcile two completely opposite things.

I feel the same way about The Invention of Lying that I felt about Bill Maher's 2008 religious satire Religulous (although that documentary was more openly contemptuous of religious faith). There's a difference between agreeing or disagreeing with the content of a movie and approving of the humor. Bill Maher is a funny guy, and he made me laugh even though I didn't share his skepticism. By the same token, I think Ricky Gervais is an even funnier individual. He may not see the value in faith that I do, but he made me laugh. And the film doesn't take (many) cheap shots. Much of the humor is very well thought-out, especially the scene in which the curious question Mark about every minute "rule" the man in the sky has created. This leads to a hilarious montage of newspaper/magazine headlines in which the man in the sky is credited with great miracles and great disasters.

Gervais is consistently hilarious, as is Jennifer Garner, who finds an original, non-annoying way to play someone who is sort of naÔve. The whole romantic triangle between Mark, Brad, and Anna consumes the last act of the picture. Itís a little flat, and the movie runs out of steam as it winds to its conclusion. Without giving anything away, the implication of the finale is that, in trying to please a Higher Power, people end up doing what they think they should do rather than what they really want to do. The Invention of Lying finds that idea nonsensical. Like I said, I personally believe that faith has brought a lot of goodness to the world; similarly, I do not believe that God is a myth. No movie will change that. Maybe thatís why I can take The Invention of Lying for what it is Ė a funny, cleverly-conceived, heartfelt expression of a point of view that is not nearly my own.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

The Invention of Lying arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 19. There are some really excellent bonus features included on the disc, starting with "Prequel: The Dawn of Lying." Essentially a pre-credit sequence that was ultimately scrapped, it features several of the key cast members playing cavemen. Gervais is, naturally, the loser caveman who lies about killing a wild boar in order to earn the respect of the others. While amusing, it's easy to see why this six-minute scene was deleted; it's very different in tone from the rest of the movie.

"A Truly Honest Making-of Featurette with Ricky Gervais" is, as promised, a less self-promotional segment than you'd most. Much of the focus is on Gervais' inability to keep a straight face on camera. His co-stars talk about the challenge of trying to get through a scene opposite an actor who can barely get a line out without cracking himself up.

"Meet Karl Pilkington" follows one of Gervais' buddy (and podcast collaborator) as he spends a day being an extra. The ever-complaining Karl is none too happy about his friend/director's attempts to make him look as buffoonish as possible on camera. The two men - one an instigator, the other a curmudgeon - give off a humorous chemistry. The kicker: Karl was an extra in the caveman scene that was eventually axed.

"Ricky and Matt's Video Podcasts" find Gervais and co-writer/co-director Matthew Robinson shooting some off-the-cuff videos. In one, Gervais reads local newspaper coverage of their location scouting. In another, he pranks his assistant, arranging for the man to be bombarded with Nerf bullets. These short podcasts are all fun to watch, as they highlight the comic actor as his most delightfully mischievous.

"More Laughter: Corpsing and Outtakes" is an assemblage of takes blown by Gervais. (Fans of his "Extras" and "The Office" DVDs will know that "corpsing" is what he calls uncontrollable laughter.) I've always been of the mind that Ricky Gervais has one of the most infectious laughs ever; when he cracks up, it's hard not to do the same, and this segment proves this once again.

Finally, there is a small handful of deleted scenes. The most notable finds Gervais trying to explain to his dim-witted pal (played by Louis CK) why you couldn't have all the money in the world and then gamble it away. Another interesting scene involves Jennifer Garner's character dissecting her reasons for going on a date.

The Invention of Lying made me laugh, and the supplementary material is strong enough that you'll want to watch it after seeing the main feature.

The Invention of Lying is rated PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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