"Invention" starts out spiky and witty, then loses its way

The Invention of Lying (2009)
99 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B -

The truth is The Invention of Lying has an engaging high-concept premise that calls for a more subversive and inspired comedy than what's invented here.

In a parallel world where everything is the same, everyone very bluntly says what's on their mind (Tourette's?), no matter how rude or hurtful. Ricky Gervais, who makes his behind-the-camera debut (co-directing and co-writing with newcomer Matthew Robinson), stars as Mark, a sadsack screenwriter who gets no respect from his cohorts at Lecture Films and is about to be fired for his failed 14th century/Black Plague script. And then he discovers he can lie!

After a blind date with an autophobic Anna, played by a comically astute Jennifer Garner, who also speaks the truth (“I was just masturbating ... I'm very disappointed and pessimistic about our date”), Mark tries romancing her after he tells everyone he knows what “The Man Who Lives in the Sky” (God) says. Rob Lowe co-stars as a smug rival screenwriter, who takes a superficial liking to Anna (conflict!).

No lie, the joke runs out of steam after a stinging, occasionally hilarious first half hour with the cast's brutally honest quips. From a grateful jolt by some spiky, witty dialogue, likable performances, and nice pop-up cameos by Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton, the film has its moments, but loses its way and softens its edges with most of the sappy, predictable beats of a rom-com.

For most of the film, Gervais shows his nasty wit, but should've followed through. Maybe next time, Ricky.