The Invention of Vaguely Amusing Rom-Coms
I’m a bit of a sucker for superhero films. Iron Man? Tip-top. The Dark Knight? Magnificent. Daredevil? Well, actually, that one was godawful. But the point is, there’s something about being able to perform wondrous feats that everyone else can only dream of which tickles the human psyche. Now, Ricky Gervais is hardly the most likely candidate for a superhero. But in his latest film, The Invention of Lying, his character discovers that, relative to everyone else in the alternate universe he inhabits, he has an amazing power: the ability to ‘say things that aren’t’. This is because, as is explained in the introduction, humankind has not ‘evolved the ability to lie’, leading to a world with no fiction or, importantly as it turns out, religion.
(This review necessarily contains spoilers. I’m not sorry.)
Everyone in this world is, of course, brutally honest with one another, providing most of the humour for most of the movie. There’s something to be said for any movie that is consistently funny all the way through, but The Invention of Lying is clearly going for quantity rather than quality in its quest for laughs. It’s as if a substantial amount of humour has been taken and spread thinly across the whole script, reliably raising chortles wherever it appears, but never resulting in anything outright hilarious. The joke about Gervais being fat and having a snub nose (which is actually lifted from Extras, Gervais’s last TV series) is repeated so often that one begins to suspect Gervais doesn’t really believe it; he’s just doing a shallow self-loathing routine we’ve seen innumerable times before.
But then, as you may expect given the film’s title, something snaps in the brain* of Gervais’s character, and mendacity appears for the first time in the world. Soon he’s running around, semi-omnipotent, able to manipulate people into doing whatever he wants. But it’s the next stage in the film’s development which is really of interest, and seriously unexpected. Gervais, in a desperate attempt to comfort his dying mother, accidentally invents religion. There’s a man in the sky, he says, who really is omnipotent. Everyone will go to ‘the best place’ when they die, and there will meet everyone they’ve ever loved. But be careful – three bad actions means you go to ‘the bad place’, where there’s an eternity of punishment. Sounds vaguely familar, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. There’s a great scene where assembled hordes of people highlight the bizarre and often rather savage inconsistencies of a God who seems to both love everyone and hate them at the same time. ‘It was the man in the sky who caused my cancer?’ Affirmative. ‘But it was also the man in the sky who cured my cancer?’ Yes again!
This is surely a big deal – a mainstream Hollywood Rom-Com with an obvious and loudly-stated anti-religious message! It certainly makes one wonder how nobody noticed it, especially when Creation, the recent (and rather turgid) Darwin biopic, was rejected by all of the major US distributors and ended up being shown in a miniscule number of cinemas, just because it took for granted that evolution is true – surely a far less controversial message than ‘religion is a lie’.
So let’s try and work out exactly what Gervais is trying to say about religion. Clearly he approves of the fact that spirituality, though vacuous, can bring comfort to people. No atheist would dispute this, though whether they’d themselves want to be comforted by lies is another matter entirely. Is it moral to tell people falsehoods just to make them feel better? Or is it incredibly patronising and manipulative? When we weigh up the positives and negatives of religion, which tips the scale?
This philosophical questions are all moot, however – the film gives up on exploring ‘The Invention of Religion’ plot fairly soon after it appears, and returns to ‘The Invention of Ricky Gervais as a Suitable Partner for Jennifer Garner’. Boring Rom-Com altar-jilting ensues, and it all leads to a saccharine happy ending – a real tragedy for what was an interesting premise. I wanted to see the negative aspects of Gervais’s religion (as if everyone believing a lie wasn’t negative enough). I wanted to see factions forming, unable to work out their differences because of their boneheaded blind faith. Admittedly, religion has been parodied a million times before, but I’d have liked to see Gervais’s unique take on the rituals, costumes and other assorted numinous nonsense. Surely, for example, in a world where everyone is truthful, overhearing people’s prayers would be ripe with comedy potential.
If only Gervais was right about religion. If only religion’s inventors had just made it up to make people feel better, and switch could be thrown back and people told ‘there is no man in the sky’. Unfortunately, religion serves a multitude of purposes, from simple-minded explanation of the world, to comfort, to ingroup social bonding. Some among the clergy are clearly conscious charlatans, but most believe it wholeheartedly, and dismissing them as liars doesn’t really get us anywhere. Still, an impressed thumbs-up to Gervais for sneaking in antitheism under the radar of Hollywood films. Let’s hope it opens the floodgates for other writers, frustrated at twisted religious bullshit, to write more mainstream films with a vaguely rationalist message. Now there’s a thought.
*Pedantic nerdy psychology note: the ‘explosion’ in Gervais’s brain appears to occur at the very back, near the cerebellum. This is the opposite part of the brain that we’d expect to be involved in lying (it would most likely involve the frontal lobes, the parts which are largest in humans). Epic neuro-fail!