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.