British comic Ricky Gervais has one kicky concept behind his directorial debut, The Invention of Lying. On an alternate earth, humanity lacks the capacity for lying so truth-telling is just telling. People may speak the truth, but have no sense of humor and no idea of fiction. As a result, they do reveal it all -- including how inflated their views of themselves can be.
As Mark Bellison (Gervais) struggles to survive at a mediocre television company, the pug-nosed, pudgy writer endures a rivalry with the better looking, more successful and far more arrogant Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe). Mark suffers through miserable dates his mother encourages him to go on. When he meets tall, gorgeous Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) on one of those dates, he falls for her and she tells him that despite the fact they get along, and that he's a nice guy, she can't continue to see him -- let alone marry him -- because she's way too out of his league; she'll never have his children. Since he's just not up to her in looks or physique, their relationship has to remain platonic.
Whether you think the creator of the English, original version of The Office -- and star of Ghost Town -- is or isn't in her league, he's so frustrated by her refusal and other factors that when his mother is on her death bed he has a brainstorm and tells her one big lie -- the first -- that death is not the end of things. She will go to a nice place where everything is wonderful. Unfortunately, his comment is overheard by the nurses and doctors and his words are spread everywhere -- that he knows things no one else in the world knows.
Soon Bellison becomes an international phenomenon, making proclamations on the afterlife and just about everything else. He lies up a storm to help friends; lies to get money from the bank; cheats at the casino; and eventually, to win the affection of Anna. People start camping out on his lawn to learn more, so he develops a strangely familiar story about the "Man in the Sky," who does all these mystical things, and is kind and wonderful. When he pastes a set of rules on two pizza boxes and reads out his Commandments, we get the message.
Though The Invention of Lying falls flat in places by the time it ends, this fascinating idea show how Gervais is leading the charge to create comedy that requires more than an endurance for bodily function jokes and absurd R-rated sight gags.
The 38-year-old Garner -- wife of Ben Affleck, former star of the spy series Alias, and who was much drubbed when she played anti-heroine Elektra -- did a great job as the ingenuous Anna. The almost 5' 9" actress further enlightened me about Gervais, the film and the art of lying in the following exclusive one-on-one interview.
JG: I think that's what they were going for. So, yeah, it did feel like that, except that it was the funniest episode of The Twilight Zone that was ever invented.
Q: When you got this script, did you think of it as a science fiction idea or more of a parody?
JG: I liked the questions that it brought up. I liked the conversations that I felt would start. I thought that it was funny. Really, when I first read it, I just laughed out loud, and that's the most important thing. I loved the way my character was introduced. I loved the challenge of looking at a scene and thinking, 'I have to play this with no subtext, no irony, no sarcasm and just be as straightforward as I could possibly be.' I think that's a really interesting acting challenge.
It wasn't until I read it again and then thought about it a little more that I thought that. As soon as you read it or see it, you can't help but think about the world and think about all these advertisements that I see, one way or another, are lies. We're sold lies all the time and it's so much a part of our society. But we edit out [a lot] of what we can say. I like that the film is provocative in that way.
JG: I feel like it has Ricky's sensibility, but no, I feel it's pretty universal. Matt Robinson co-wrote and co-directed the script and the movie with Ricky. I think that they didn't really seem to have, "Oh, that's too British" or "You're trying to pull it to the American." There were a couple of references or words that of course you have to switch, but no, it does not seem British to me.
Q: It's got a great cast.
JG: There are some of the greatest comic talent alive and a lot of them are in this film, from Tina Fey to Louis C.K. to Christopher Guest...
Q: And Jonah Hill.
JG: You could go on and on and on. I signed on before all of those people. So I had the benefit of being on the film and hearing more and more about how great the cast was every day and how it was growing and growing. I felt like, "Wow, I signed onto this tiny independent movie, and now it's turned into this whole thing." It's just a lucky coincidence for me.
Q: And when they saw your name on it, did they jump onto it because you were signed already?
JG: [laughs] Yeah. I don't flatter myself to think that I was the draw there. I think that Ricky Gervais definitely has quite a following and is very, very respected.
Q: When Ricky asked you to be in the film, did you ask why he wasn't putting you into the British episodes of The Office?
JG: I do ask Ricky all the time why I haven't been invited to be on Extras or The Office or anything else. I bug him about it all the time and I'm still waiting. They're both done. They're speedy over there.
Q: You've done a lot of rom-com. What do you think of Gervais and his universe of humor? It's not the obvious humor, it's more realistic. Is there a trend towards this sort of comedy?
JG: I think there are a couple of different trends in humor. One is the Judd Apatow kind of humor of embarrassment [that's] humor of gross-out. Then there's the humor of embarrassment with reality, using real relationships and situations.
That's what Ricky does. I think part of what he does so well is that his humor is never mean spirited. It's very honest. He's very interested in what's honest, and he finds the truth to be the funniest. I loved working with him because he's so clear about what would make something funny, and he's always right. He's so funny and so incredibly good at what he does.
Q: Do you think Bellison deserved to get what he got in the ending?
JG: I think he had earned it by then, certainly, because he's the kinder one. The interesting thing about Anna in the film is that she's the first woman to make a choice romantically.
In a world where women are driven by evolution and by the quest for the best genetics for their offspring, she's the first woman in this world who knows that something is different here. She's the first woman to say, 'No. I love this man. That's a good enough reason to be with him and have kids with him.'
Q: Both you and Ben [Affleck] have been leaning towards humor after you both started out in more serious roles. Do you find that you started to trade quips at home, reading each other the funny lines from your projects?
JG: Yeah, we'll tell each other the funny scenes or whatever. But as far as trading quips, I don't know if we actually are living the life of His Girl Friday or something like that. It's probably much more boring and banal than that.
Q: Right, but I just assume that he beats you out with the laughs. He's a smart and funny guy.
JG: Are you saying that you think he's funnier than I am? Are you challenging me, saying that you think that my husband would come up with the funnier quips than I would? Because I will tell you that is certainly not the case.
Q: Oops! Are you picking projects now that mix it up for you; are you trying to show different aspects of yourself? Where do you think you're going in your career?
JG: The whole point of being an actor is that you don't do the same thing every day. So I'm just interested always in finding something that feels like, "Oh, wait. I've never done this before. This is different. This will be a real challenge." Luckily, all different kinds of things have come my way and so I've been able to pick and choose.
Q: If you had your ideal choice, what would be the thing that you'd like to do next, the most contrasting thing to follow this up?
JG: I just want to do something that's good. Nothing has to come next. I would love to do a musical, but if that happens five years from now, I'm fine with that. I don't feel like, "I have to accomplish this right now." It's much more that I just love whatever it is that I do. I don't just say yes to everything.
What I'd love to see happen next is a film that my production company has been working on for a long time called Butter. It's this little movie that takes place in the world of butter carving at the Iowa State Fair. So if that could happen next I would be thrilled.
Q: Do you ever think that Ben should direct one of your projects or even cast you in one of his, or do you guys try to stay as far from that as possible because of the scheduling issues?
JG: Of course, I wish that he could direct everything. There's no one better. Scheduling is definitely a big factor for us. If we were both on the same set at the same time all day--our kids are too young for that, so it's something that doesn't come up right now. But who knows, maybe we'll revisit it in a few years.
Q: Do you find now with kids that your outlook on what you want to do in film has changed, either wanting to do family-friendly projects or going in the opposite direction?
JG: I don't really feel like I'm driven away from doing family stuff or towards it. I look at the scripts that come my way. I look at the script that we're developing in my production company. It's much more about finding something that I like to do than it is about some overall thing like, 'I better stay away from family movies' or 'I'd really like to do a family movie.' I mean, if a family movie came along and it was great, then I wouldn't care if I had no family or a family of ten kids, I'd still want to do it.
Q: But you're not inviting superhero costume films?
JG: Sure. If one came along, and it was great, I would suit right up.
Q: Which hero would you have in mind? Do you have a favorite?
JG: I don't know who she would be. It would have to surprise me. I don't have a particular favorite.
Q: Wonder Woman?
Q: Are you good at lying?
JG: I'm a horrible liar. I can exaggerate. I can definitely make a good story better, but as far as just telling a lie, not very good.
Q: So you would've been good for a world where no one lied?
JG: No, because I do think there's real value in a white lie to save someone's feelings.
Q: Are there some people that you'd like to tell the truth to, since it's perhaps a world in which you can't lie?
JG: Yeah, there are one or two that I'd like to get ahold of.
Q: What would you tell them?
JG: Wouldn't you love to know [laughs]?