Ricky Gervais’ 2009 film The Invention of Lying is a unique comedy that offers the audience a glimpse of an alternate reality that is entirely different than our own. In nearly every way, the world of the film, and the characters that inhabit it, seem just like our own–save for one minor difference. The notion of lying, deceit, or dishonesty simply do not exist. As the film’s narration explains, everyone tells the truth 100% of the time. In our own world, lying is almost universally looked down upon. In fact, it is one of the first lessons that a parent is expected to teach their child: lying is wrong. But The Invention of Lying suggests that perhaps lies do have an important role in our society. Through hyperbole, the film shows us what a world without deception might look like, and through parody points out how some widely accepted ideas are nothing more than mere lies. In all, The Invention of Lying’s satire aims to call attention to the complicated and nuanced nature of lies, while simultaneously reminding us all just how widespread they really are. And as it turns out, that might not actually be a bad thing.
The most blatant and in-your-face aspect of satire is the film’s parody of religion. While consoling his dying mother, Mark is deeply saddened to see just how terrified she is of an eternity of nothingness. In response, he tells a lie and assures her that some form of heaven awaits her. What began as a white lie soon spirals out of control, and Mark find himself sharing with the world his stories of “the man in the sky,” the ten rules to follow–written on pizza boxes instead of stone tablets, and–eventually, at least–takes on Jesus-like imagery in the form of an unshaven beard, and wrapped in his bedsheets. On the one hand, this satire serves to point out the ridiculousness of religion and just how unfounded some of its principles are. But at the same time, it serves to demonstrate the potential positive aspects of such lies; if Mark’s stories of the “man in the sky” helps his mother be at peace, or encourages other people to be good to one another, are they really are that bad? The Invention of Lying doesn’t directly provide answers to this question, but at the very least prompts the audience to ponder it.
But beyond the satirization of organized religion, Gervais’ film does somewhat miss out on some of the more nuanced details of what deceit and lying entail. Namely, the film focuses entirely on lies that are told verbally–under the rules of the film, it is impossible for a person to “say something that isn’t.” But there are so many forms of lying beyond the verbal. For instance, there is distinct body language during Mark and Anna’s dates that seem to be at least a minimal form of deception. For instance, when Anna’s mother calls her during the date, Mark squirms in his seat as he listens to half of the conversation, but never says anything is specifically wrong or on his mind. This is somewhat of a lie via omission, but revealed to the audience through his body language. Even though the writers endeavored to remove all spoken lies from the script, lying seems to be so engrained in the human experience that is is impossible to ever remove every instance of it.
So while The Invention of Lying certainly points out that deception, lying, and honesty are not a simple black and white issue, it still falls short of identifying all of the ways in which telling lies is a complicated and nuanced issue. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that it is a mere comedy film, so it would be unfair to expect it to engage in a full philosophical and ethical discussion on the virtues of honesty. To that end, the film is a successful satire–it points out an issue, and prompts the audience to consider it further. It suggests that our commonly-held notions of lying are incomplete, and ought to be reconsidered. Take again, the earlier example of teaching children not to lie. Sure, this is one of the first moral lessons that a parent may try to teach their child, but at the same time, deception is an important indicator of positive brain development. It means that the child understands that their view of the world is different than others. In other words, it’s the same message that The Invention of Lying attempts to convey: telling lies is engrained in human nature, and perhaps it can actually be a good thing in certain circumstances.