Last week, I had the great pleasure of going to the cinema on a weekday when I should have been working. Engaging in this activity can’t help but be a wondrous dream come true, even if you are, as I was, seeing The Invention of Lying. I’m not going to talk at any length here about what I consider the film’s problems to be, as fellow Scrivener Tony Martin has already done an excellent job of, in the modern way, pithily addressing the issue on Twitter.
Over the past few days, I’ve chatted to several people about The Invention of Lying and seen generally mild-mannered individuals get pretty hot under the collar due to their disappointment with everything about it. The film raises many questions for the viewer but not in a way that benefits it, because they all lead the person asking them to the conclusion that nothing in what they’ve just seen remotely hangs together. To me, what’s most upsetting is that the film doesn’t work despite so many talented people being present and accounted for. Viewing the array of personnel resembles what, when you’re about seven years old, you expect Hollywood will be like: that you will run into a big star on every street corner every time you just go out to buy milk. Therefore, while I was watching the film I was, in part, thinking, If people of this calibre can balls something up so badly, I’d best never attempt anything again as long as I live.
That’s the upsettingness factor out of the way. What I, on the other hand, found fascinating about The Invention of Lying was the question of what kind of lies might have been told during the time and after it was being made. An intelligent group of people was responsible for this film. It is hard to imagine that at some point one of them didn’t read the script especially closely or watch the ‘rushes’, as I believe they say in the ‘business’, and have the nagging feeling that it was shaping up to be a doomed enterprise. Assuming this, seemingly unavoidable, deduction was reached, did anyone say anything and, if so, what? Of course, it’s highly possible that many people did weigh in on The Invention of Lying along the way and that the film ended up being a great deal better than it might have been. Naturally, it’s equally as possible that a lot of people weighed in and it became even worse. Still, I assume that there were a few people just electing to keep their mouths shut.
I remember hearing an anecdote about someone telling Paul McCartney in the nineteen sixties that he didn’t much care for his latest composition – ‘Hello Goodbye’, I think it was. This didn’t anger Paul; he was merely visibly surprised, since it was so long since anyone had told him that they didn’t like something he was responsible for (he, of course, got a lot more used to it once Magical Mystery Tour was first screened on television). So, is Ricky Gervais now in the McCartney situation of being so successful that no one wants to be the person saying anything less than favourable to him, in part, perhaps, because they believe that if he’s involved, whatever it is must be better than they think it is? Putting to one side the question of what his colleagues may or may not have said, I would be interested to know what was going on in Gervais’s private life. His long-time partner is a producer (on the corker series This Life, no less) and, I imagine, has a brain in her head (unlike, say, Mayor Carcetti’s wife in The Wire). Did she ever try to put him straight?
It’s not that I have no sympathy for her if she didn’t; in fact, most unusually for me, I couldn’t have more sympathy. The thing is, I will like and respect anyone whatsoever who pays me a compliment. Chiang Kai-shek could pay me a compliment, and I’d immediately have no problem at all with any aspect of his personality or conduct. The other side of this coin, though, is that it’s difficult not to dislike, even briefly, someone who tells you that they don’t like the fruits of your labours. Everyone knows this, which is why there are few things more confronting than having to talk to someone about something they’ve created, or otherwise been involved in, that you didn’t care for.
I remember in the early nineteen eighties going with my cousin to see her boyfriend perform in a production of Fiddler on the Roof that was mounted by an amateur company based on Sydney’s lower North Shore. While I have no way of knowing how many actual Jews there were on stage, I do know that my cousin’s boyfriend wasn’t one of them. I thought my relative was going to go into cardiac arrest she was laughing so hard when the man himself first appeared on stage in what looked like a beard made out of felt, playing a character called Mendel or Farcel or, possibly, Yankel. And, let’s face it, once you’ve heard ‘If I Were a Rich Man’, it’s pretty much all over for Fiddler, even though the show continues for approximately one hundred hours afterwards.
Aside from my cousin’s boyfriend’s first appearance on stage, and some later, awkward, Cossack dancing, my clearest memory of the event is of my cousin’s dawning horror at what lay before her in having to ‘go backstage’. It was as though she were Anne of the Thousand Days the night before the thousandth day. Of course, however, when it came to it, she pulled something out of the bag; that is, she masterfully latched on to a couple of minutes of the production that she did actually enjoy and elected not really to speak of the rest.
And the thing is that my cousin’s boyfriend didn’t even have anything riding on his appearance in Fiddler; he had no desire to go on the stage professionally, he just wanted to keep his theatrically inclined flatmate company. So, just imagine how much you would dissemble if you were a great friend of Gervais talking to him after The Invention of Lying’s premiere, when the man does have a lot riding on it and it’s really too late for anyone to do anything anyway.
And here we have one of the big troubles with the film. As quite a few other people have by now pointed out, the fact that a person doesn’t know how to lie doesn’t mean they just say whatever is on their mind. The fact that the characters do do this in The Invention of Lying means that they, by and large, seem as simple as a shorts-clad Mel Gibson when he starred in Tim. I would guess that a lot of people who know and love Ricky Gervais kept their mouths tightly closed once they’d seen his latest film, rather than behaving the way its characters do. After all, even if kindness doesn’t kick in in a situation like that, cowardice almost always will.