(CNN) -- The Academy-Award winning British producer and (briefly) Columbia Pictures head David Puttnam used to have a placard on the wall of his office. It read: "Hello, he lied."
In "The Invention of Lying," Ricky Gervais plays a "loser" in a society that tells only the truth.
Lies are second nature in Hollywood, or maybe even first nature, so it's not surprising that the breathtakingly simple but bewilderingly original idea underpinning the new movie from "The Office" creator Ricky Gervais came from an industry neophyte, Gervais's co-writer and co-director, Matthew Robinson.
The idea? In a world in which everyone always speaks the truth -- in which no one has ever so much as considered deceit, flattery, hyperbole, hiring an illegal maid or under-declaring their taxable returns -- what status, fame and fortune would fall to the first man to realize the power of fabrication?
Appropriately, Gervais' character, Mark Bellison, works in the film biz as a screenwriter. But this being a society in which fiction has yet to be invented, his job consists of penning historical lectures that will then be read aloud to the moviegoing public by the on-screen narrator.
Mark has drawn the short straw with the 14th century (no one wants to hear about the Black Death), and he's about to be fired, as his secretary (Tina Fey) is eager to tell him. She's never liked him anyway; she tells him that, too.
An honest world can be a brutal place for a short, fat loser, which is all that Mark is. After all, everybody says so.
The movie never surpasses the gleeful hilarity of the first 25 minutes, when it allows us to imagine just how crushing and soulless this nakedly Darwinian universe would be.
The high point comes early, with Mark's dispiriting blind date with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), who is scrupulously frank about her first impressions and his long-term prospects, which are nil. She's searching for a fiscally well-endowed, genetically attractive mate, and Mark ain't him. Watch Gervais explain why Garner came cheap »
Gervais has made similar, self-deprecating remarks about the chances of a chubby Brit like him making it in Hollywood -- a line he repeated at the Emmys recently -- though it must be said, so far, Hollywood seems to be welcoming him with open arms. "The Invention of Lying" is loaded with celebrity cameos from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton and Christopher Guest.
Gervais should relax: Clowns don't have to be Cary Grant. Funny-looking is fine for a funny man.
Meanwhile Mark's obsession with the unfairness of it all smacks of self-pity. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the filmmakers that his attraction to Anna is based entirely on her looks. Garner's role cries out for grace notes -- a kind word, a quip, an insight, some flash of warmth -- Garner can only hint at.
Provocatively, the big lie that changes everything is the promise of an afterlife Mark gives to his mother on her deathbed. The word soon gets out, and Mark is forced to spell out the tenets of the world's first religion, as dictated to him by "the man in the sky." Or so he says, and who should doubt it?
You have to admire the audacity of such sacrilegious mischief-making, but truth be told, the movie loses its way the longer Gervais spins out this anti-parable. His false prophet acquires fame and fortune but still struggles to convince the girl that he's a better bet than Rob Lowe in the genes department.
The ending's uncertain mixture of cynicism and sentimentality doesn't feel entirely plausible, and between them, Gervais and Robinson can't smooth over the story's bumpy patches. At times, the energy just seeps out of the film.
But that doesn't mean "The Invention of Lying" isn't the funniest movie around right now. At its best, it's inspired. It's just that Ricky Gervais still has a ways to go before his filmmaking reaches the sustained pitch of his TV work. It should be fun seeing him figure it out.
"The Invention of Lying" is rated PG-13 and runs 100 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.
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