Friday, November 16 , 2018, 2:15 am | Fair 48º

 
 
 
 

Cinema in Focus: ‘The Invention of Lying’

It's difficult to know how to take humor when it crosses the line between satire and ridicule

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

It’s fascinating to see the creative satire of Ricky Gervais (writer for The Office) and Matthew Robinson. Creating a world in which no one ever lies, thus every person can trust whatever anyone else says, this creative team makes that world all the more humorous in The Invention of Lying by having every person say everything they are thinking. Not only is every person truthful, but they share every private thought and every honest assessment — whether they are having a first date or waiting on a table.

In the middle of this world of social blatancy, we find Mark Bellison (Gervais). He is a middle-age man who is truthfully assessed by everyone — including himself — as a loser. Alone and failing at his job, Mark has a flash of devilish insight and tells the first lie in history. Everyone believes him. It gives him tremendous power to manipulate others for his benefit because they trust him unquestioningly.

Although the film exaggerates the discomfort we might have with unwavering honesty by having everyone say everything they are thinking, you can’t help but ask yourself what it would be like living in a world where every person can be trusted. It is true that the many games we play in attempting to cover up our true assessments of one another are often destructive, but blatant honesty also has its pains. Isn’t there a middle ground where social grace can still be truthful? Isn’t a lie only powerful for as long as it goes undetected?

It is here that Gervaise and Robinson avoid the obvious problem. When Mark lies to Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) and she uncovers his deceit, the film leaves Anna in a state of absolute trust. She isn’t crushed by the fact that she can’t trust Mark or believe his words. His lies don’t undermine their ability to have a relationship. Instead, the film implies that lying is helpful if not a necessary part of their relationship.

Where the film takes a turn is when Mark’s mother, Martha (Fionnula Flanagan), is dying. Expressing her fear that she’s simply going into nothingness, Mark fabricates a comforting tale that there is life after death. He tells her that she’s going to a place where there is no more pain, and where we not only are reunited with loved ones but we each get a mansion. The implication is that religious belief in life after death is a lie to make dying mothers feel better. The film doesn’t reverse the thought by asking if his mother’s longing for something after death may, in fact, be evidence of her spirit’s longing for life after death.

The film goes on to make this even more obvious when the world turns to Mark to teach them about life after death and he fabricates 10 assertions about “The Man in the Sky.” Mimicking Moses with two tablets in his hands, he explains first that “The Man in the Sky controls everything,” a simplistic theological statement probably stated for a laugh. But it is here that the film can be taken in two ways: It could be moving from religious satire to ridicule, or it could be demonstrating that simplistic religious views aren’t adequate.

As people react to Mark’s 10 assertions about God and life, the simplistic premises he presents are questioned and reacted to in ways that demonstrate the complexities of theological thought. It’s not easy to create 10 assertions or commandments that stand the test of time and the intellect of humanity.

What is missing from Mark’s 10 assertions is the concept of grace — the grace and forgiveness of a loving God is absent as the “Man in the Sky” allows only three sins, and then you no longer get to go to “the place with the mansions.” The concept of Jesus coming to forgive all sins and restore a relationship with God is absent from Mark’s primitive religion.

Although the conclusion of the film begs the issue of a lie undermining trust, the message that love trumps “genetic superiority” is a helpful one in our world where people believe more in genetics than the creator who reveals himself as love. It’s in this revelation that the truth shines through and spiritual reality reveals itself in this most unlikely place.

Discussion:

» When people approach death, do you believe their hope in life after death comes from their spirit’s awareness that they are going to go on or from their fear of obliteration? What do you believe about life after death? What does your own spirit say to you?

» The love that Anna chooses over “genetic superiority” implies that pure, honest logic is inferior to the spiritual experience of love. Do you think that means the film is supporting religious truths? How do you interpret this film?

» When Mark lies and yet no one else joins him in the ability to lie (except for son), the film implies that a deceit would not encourage others to deceive as well. If we were a people who could be trusted to say only the truth and one person started lying, do you think it would spread to others? Why or why not?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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