Reflections on “The Invention of Lying”

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ALERT: The majority of this post reveals and discusses SPOILERS.
If you are contemplating seeing The Invention of Lying, do not read below the poster until after you’ve seen it!
You have been warned!

Go see The Invention of Lying. Normally, I don’t spend money on a movie ticket if the experience isn’t going to be worth it. Romantic comedies rarely get a theatre screening from me. I go for the visual effects in a movie like Star Trek or the auditory experience of a musical like Hairspray or the shared audience experience of a movie like Brüno. If a movie doesn’t have a unique theatre appeal, it usually gets a pass. That all being said, let me reiterate: Go see The Invention of Lying.

As a romantic comedy it has an elegant simplicity that is heartwarming and yet original without being overwhelming. But on a deeper level, this film portrays a subtle yet profound commentary on humanity with a philosophical bent that you might not expect. I was laughing mere seconds into the film and there were even a few moments that got a tear. It’s a movie that is just lovely, and I recommend going to see it for either of the reasons I just described if not both. It’s the deeper philosophical stuff I’m going to reflect on in the rest of the post, so don’t scroll down if you haven’t seen it. I’ll be spoiling it pretty blatantly. Enjoy!

The Invention of Lying movie poster

Ricky Gervais has been about as hinting as he can be without spilling the beans, but let’s just bluntly discuss it here. The premise of the movie is that humanity never evolved (yes, evolved) the ability to lie. Guess what that means? No fiction, and more importantly, no religion. Now, the movie doesn’t outright say it, but you discover it. See, Gervais’s character discovers he has the ability to lie (and the film even suggests the ability is the result of  a genetic mutation—yes, evolved), but since nobody else has the ability, they believe everything he says as if it’s the truth. As he watches his mother die in agony and fear, he figures he can use his ability to comfort her, and tells her she’s going to a better place (the first time an idea had every been considered). That was where I cried; for a comedy, the scene was quite lovely. The movie, in my opinion, is really more about inventing religion (with obvious symbolic references to Moses and Jesus) and then overcoming it than it is about being a lighthearted romantic comedy (which it accomplishes as well).

The walkaway message from this movie is you don’t need religion to be happy. In both subtle and not so subtle ways, the movie is waving a huge flag for atheism and humanism. While most people won’t perceive that message, it is undoubtedly the entire point. The whole film is a commentary of humanity: our superficiality, our emotions, our gullibility, and ultimately the importance of making the most out of life and the time we have. That all sounds very deep, and it is, but the movie itself is light and witty and delivers the philosophy with a wink and smile.

The first part of the movie is utterly hilarious, delivering heaps of brutal honesty almost entirely void of compassion. I would suggest that this is what a lot of people who don’t understand atheism think godlessness would be like. People think only about themselves. Superficiality is the norm. Mating is about finding the best genetic match (mostly by looks) with which to breed. (More on this later.) It’s cold, sterile, and egotistical. The epitome of this was probably the nursing home, which in the film was called “The sad place for hopeless old people.” It’s funny, but it’s not pretty.

Then, our protagonist, Mark Bellison, invents lying and after getting a few things he wants (I’d say he was due), he starts using it to make people happy. It’s a very uplifting part of the movie. With a few simple lies, he brings joy to every person he encounters, culminating with lying to his mom about heaven on her deathbed. I have to say, I thought it was a beautiful moment. I really did cry a little. And then he goes on to literally invent religion, and he does it for admirable reasons. He wants people to be happy and have something to live for (everybody gets a mansion!). This is the part of the movie that buys into what I think a lot of Agnostics think about the world: ignorance is bliss. If belief makes people happy, then it can’t be such a bad thing.

But the final portion of the movie portrays the world how atheists see it. All the people that Mark was able to make happy with a simple lie go back to being miserable. Mark, himself, is not able to use lies to find the happiness he truly wants. Now, before I get to the final conclusion about atheism, I have to talk about the wedding scene.

Despite there not being any LGBT characters in the film, the wedding was a very telling commentary on marriage equality. In the sterile lie-less world, marriage is equally cold and sterile. It’s not about love or commitment or taking care of each other. It’s just about finding someone to have and raise kids with. I loved how instead of “til death do you part,” the vow was simply “for as long as you want.” The message was clear: if you are marrying just because of the kind of children you’ll have, you’re marrying for the wrong reasons. Yet, that is exactly what anti-marriage equality people promote. “Marriage is a man and a woman,” “Kids need a father and mother,” “Marriage is about procreation.” The arguments against gay marriage paint the same sterile picture as the wedding in The Invention of Lying. In the real world, we know that marriage is only meaningful when it’s build around love and commitment and protecting each other, which is exactly why the queer community continues to fight for that same right and protection. Like the other deeper themes in the movie, this might not be noticeable to the average movie-goer, but I think the film conveys a powerful argument for marriage equality.

And the ultimate message of the movie is exactly what atheists fight and fight and fight to get people to understand. You don’t need God to be good. You just need to be good to be good. It’s a simple lesson that can be applied quite simply in life, but if you walk out of the movie without thinking about it, you might miss it. Mark’s redeeming moment is when he admits there is no Man in the Sky, and it’s the moment we admire him most. Gervais is so tricky! I wonder how many audiences will unwittingly applaud the main character for admitting there is no God!

Ultimately, I think this is what is most powerful about the film. It’s so easy to get. I mean, if you think about it, it’s not even that subtle, but it’s easy to get without a heavy “anti-religion” message. I think as atheism continues to spread throughout our society and people begin to understand more why believing in God is not necessary to lead a fulfilling life, this movie will be a great fall-back for explaining that concept. We’ll tell our friends, “Remember The Invention of Lying? That guy invented God because he thought it would make people happy, but it didn’t. It was simply wanting people to be happy that made people happy. That’s what it’s like to be an atheist!”

Regardless of all that deep stuff, it’s just a funny movie. It is enjoyable from start to finish. But I think why it had such a profound impact was because it was a mainstream portrayal of how I live my life, which is so incredibly rare. You can only watch that creepy deleted scene in Sunshine so many times. The Invention of Lying is a movie I will treasure for years to come…

“Grandpa, what was it like when everyone still believed in God?”
“Well, young lady, let me tell you about the first time a popular movie suggested to people that they didn’t have to…”

Oh, and if you didn’t see it and you read my whole commentary and had everything spoiled for you, you should still go see it. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it.

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There are 4 Comments to "Reflections on “The Invention of Lying”"

  • Anastasia says:

    I cried more than a little when Mark’s mother died. It reminded me too much of when my Babcia was suffering just a few months ago. She had her religion to keep fear at bay, which strangely comforted me somewhat, but not enough. I hope she didn’t die afraid, but I don’t even know if that is possible for humans, having not yet come to that bridge myself.

    Anyway, a few members of AAS saw the film together this afternoon, and there were definitely parts when we were all laughing and the rest of the audience was silent. We were all struck by the dual message in the film. 1st, religion is made up and unnecessary. 2nd, materialism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. The lesson truly is, just spend your time loving each other and trying to make each other happy. Not because anyone told you to, just because it’s the human (animal?) thing to do.

  • ZackFord says:

    I went by myself and there were only about 10 other people in the theatre, and there were definitely a lot of times I was laughing quite a bit all by myself. I think it really is the human thing to do. I like that the “evolution” bit was worked in and the whole bit about “this is the way of the world.” It really speaks to not just how we live our lives, but the very core of our humanity.

  • Francois says:

    I have just watched this movie and found it very dumb. Funny? No. Touching? No. Redeeming feature? None.
    Sorry, just my view.

  • ZackFord says:

    Well, gosh, Francois, thank you for your thoughtful and substantive comment. I can only infer that you either see absolutely no significance to any of my commentary and have dismissed it outright or you didn’t bother to read it, and either is kind of insulting.

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