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Originally published Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'Invention of Lying' is funny but uneven

"The Invention of Lying" gets off to a hilarious start, but stumbles a bit. It stars Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Rob Lowe and Tina Fey. A review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Invention of Lying,' with Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Fionnula Flanagan, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey. Written and directed by Gervais and Matthew Robinson. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, including some sexual material and a drug reference. Several theaters.

MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

Nobody plays a sad sack quite like British comedian/writer Ricky Gervais; something about his posture and his ever-hopeful-yet-slightly-beseeching expression speaks of a balloon just about to deflate. In "The Invention of Lying," which has the funniest first half of a movie I've seen in a long time, he plays Mark Bellison, a fellow whose life is very trying indeed. He's socially awkward, he's got a dead-end job, his boss is trying to fire him — and he lives in a world in which nobody can tell a lie.

Now that, my friends, is a concept, and Gervais and Matthew Robinson (who wrote and directed the film) mine comedy gold from it for the movie's first half. Mark goes on a date with a woman somewhat out of his league, Anna (Jennifer Garner, all dimpled glibness), and the evening is a symphony of unwanted honesty. Mark: "How are you?" Anna: "A little frustrated at the moment. Also equally depressed and pessimistic about our date tonight. Come in." At the restaurant, the waiter introduces himself with, "I'm very embarrassed I work here," and later, handing Anna a drink, confesses, "I had a little sip of this."

Mark works at Lecture Films, a grimly bland corporation where he specializes in droning "and then this happened" documentaries about 14th-century history (fictional films, in this world, don't exist). His new secretary (Tina Fey) knows he's dead meat; his handsome nemesis (Rob Lowe) is scornful of him — all is misery. And then one day, in a moment of desperation, Mark tells a lie. It's instantly believed — why wouldn't it be? — and so he dangles another untruth ("I'm black"), and another. A startlingly new concept is born, along with the idea that sometimes, when you don't tell the truth, it makes people feel better.

And here is where the film wanders off the rails, though not fatally. Mark, trying to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), tells her how good things will be in the hereafter. She believes him and dies peacefully; meanwhile, word gets out that somebody knows something about life after death. Soon, Mark is a messiah — making it up, of course, as he goes along — and the movie has turned into a satire on religion; one neither especially biting nor exceptionally funny.

Gervais and Robinson rely a little too heavily on song montages in the movie's second half, and by the time things wrap up and Anna has learned that short, fat people can be nice, too, "The Invention of Lying" almost feels like a different movie. A shame, but part of a great film is better than none at all. Someday, Gervais will make a screen comedy both brilliant and consistent; in the meantime, "The Invention of Lying" will pass the time.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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