Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: "The Invention of Lying"

Obviously, this is not one of those cool, up-to-the-minute, hot-off-the-press reviews.  Philosophy PhD and I tend to get our movies from the library and we also don't watch TV, so we have very little, if anything, to offer toward opinions on up-to-the-minute films.

"The Invention of Lying" is a film I chose from the Fast Views section of the library - DVDs that are semi-new.  I had never heard of the film before, but the premise as described on the back of the box seemed promising.  Now that we've seen it (well, admittedly, only about half of it) it has continued to occupy my thoughts as a kind of mind worm, so here we are: my blog's first movie review.

The premise really is rather interesting: a world, very much like ours, but where people do not know how to lie.Then one day, in a moment of desperation because he's about to become homeless, the protagonist develops a sudden capacity (perhaps via evolution?  The film hints at this but really doesn't go into depth) to say that he has more money in his bank account than he actually does.  He clearly believes it won't work but strangely, it does!  The teller believes him and he finds himself able to pay his rent.  From there, he goes on to use his new found skill/genetic change to hit on girls and steal loads of money from a casino. 

Our protagonist also has a mother who is close to death in a very depressing nursing home.  She has a heart attack and, as she lays there dying and afraid to die because she knows there is nothing after death, her son concocts a "lie" telling her how happy and joyful things are when we die, how everyone has a mansion, etc.

Therein lies the crux of the whole film.  The doctors and nurses have overheard the son's explanation and believe it; the son's lie makes the news so that people all around the world start wondering at and believing in this alternate life-after-death reality.

This is the part when we turned off the film.  I googled the film later and found that Ricky Gervais is an atheist and clearly has an argument he wants to display here, that a happy afterlife can't exist.  Apparently (because again, I haven't seen this part of the film and doubtless won't) Gervais' character invents a "Big Man in the Sky" who told him all about this afterlife, which then overtakes peoples' realities and makes them believe in things that don't really exist.

It wasn't actually the life-after-death "lie" that was the major cause of our not finishing the movie.  That was just the cherry on top  of a number of other fantastical things that happen in the movie.  We'd been wondering whether to turn it off prior - so that when we reached the point where it was quite clear that the movie had a bone to pick with "religion" we knew, okay, this really is not a movie we want to continue watching.

The problems, from our points of view as philosopher and theologian, were numerous.  First was the way in which truth telling was depicted from the beginning: the characters just feel free to blurt out whatever they are thinking.  Telling the truth is more about behaving like my three-year-old, as we got a running commentary on what each character was literally thinking and doing any time they opened their mouths. The female romantic lead talks to the protagonist about the fact that she was masturbating when he rang the doorbell, side-by-side with noting that she things the protagonist is an ugly loser who will not be getting any sex. (Similarly, my three-year-old said yesterday: Mommy, I'm building a fort.  Mommy, I'm putting blankets on my fort.  Mommy, I'm going potty  in my fort.)

Omitting saying anything that might hurt someone else was also a "lie" Apparently having good manners and being polite counts, in this film's world, as lying.  To us, that seemed like a really, REALLY constricted view of "telling the truth."  Did the film makers really intend for truth tellers to behave like toddlers and preschoolers?

Along with this constricted view was also that truth cannot be involved with fictional stories.  At one point in order to save his job, the man writes a science fiction screenplay; everyone takes it as historical truth, because the only "story" that can exist in this rarefied world of no-lying is hi-story.  This is a strange idea for a number of reasons.  First, history is never as "cut-and-dried" as some want to claim.  Betsy Ross did not (gasp) sew the first American flag, and yet telling the story of the "fact" that she did is somehow important to American ethos.  Historians argue over the best ways to tell their respective stories.  Second, it overlooks that poetry and fiction can tell us something true even if they are not the constrictive literal truth portrayed in the film.  It isn't clear to me that a world without lying requires a world without poetry and fiction.  One would perhaps know the difference between fiction and non-fiction with a bit more clarity than my students sometimes do.

Since the film seems to be so constricted in its view of truth, it also lacks consistency with its main idea, which was making the point that any idea of The Big Man in the Sky is a lie.  The film rather clearly was on the side of Big Man in the Sky = lie = stupid, childish idea, but yet it is the truth tellers do not behave like adults.  Is it more adult to lie or more adult to tell the truth?  Is it better to be constricted or not?  It is possible that some of the people involved in making the film wanted the viewers to consider this quite interesting conundrum.  But that conundrum gets overtaken rapidly and completely by the film's point that the Big Man in the Sky is just an invention made up by an average guy, and that no one really needs to believe it.

Finally, from a theologian's point of view, the movie is very childlike in its visions of 1) evolution, 2) human life, and 3) God.

1. In this film evolution seemed to "just happen" to a very weak man in dire straits.  That does not tend to be a part of most evolutionary theory, though there is quite a bit of interesting work being done in evolutionary biology about the ways in which one's environment affects the ways a being evolves.

2. Human life together involves relationships with other people.  The relationships in this film could not be deep because of the too-constricted view of lying.  There could be, for example, no sense of compassion for others, even others on the brink of suicide because compassion is a lie, for the film makers.  Everything has to be done by sheer will.  Except, apparently, romance - for the protagonist is brought together with the Girl, not out of will but out of a concept of love that one would think would also belong to the category of "lies" in this world view.  At the film's beginning, people date in order to mate and have children.  So what is the deal with this romantic relationship that seems to be based on something other than genetic desire to have genetic offspring? 

3. Finally - The Big Man in the Sky does not belong much to a Judeo-Christian view of the world.  It doesn't really belong to the views of most other "religions" insofar as I understand them.  Granted, there are points in the Bible where God seems to be nothing other than a large anthropomorphic version of ourselves.  There are many other places where God is not - God is far more mysterious than the mind can contain.  And that complexity is exactly the point in my tradition: God both wants and seeks relationships with humans (and so seems anthropomorphized in the ways that Job anthropomorphizes) but God is also extraordinarily other, so very much NOT the Big Man in the Sky.  When Augustine was wrestling with whether or not to become a Christian in the Confessions, part of his wrestling was due to his then-view that God was a Big Man.  He later recognized that view to be untrue precisely because it was so problematic and troublesome, as the film also seems to elude.  Augustine (5th century) was not the first to wrestle with his addled views about God; many, many others before and since have also come to see that human constructions of God have some degree of falsity.  How we can "know" about God has occupied the minds of people far more brilliant and thoughtful than the film's writers; this degree of complexity about the question would make for quite an interesting and thought-provoking show.

All of which is to say, finally, that the film lacks the kind of depth that its title suggests.  The questions raised by the film, including the existence of God, are indeed interesting ones to raise, but needed a more engaging worldview than the one so flatly presented.  The film does little more than feed into the simple-mindedness of atheisms as displayed by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  For myself, I'd rather be involved in a conversation with an atheism that takes human thinking and living seriously - the atheism of a Karl Marx or a Friederich Nietzsche.  So, for giving me the opportunity to think all these things through, I thank the film makers.  Imagine what I could do with something of more weighty substance?


  1. Hear, hear. The conceit is amusing and philosophically suggestive, but the overly restricted conception of "lying" makes the movie come off as a shallowly didactic fable, not a rich exploration of the subject at hand.

    For me, the thing about the movie that most strained credulity was this: a society in which lying was impossible, and in which both tact and fiction are construed as lying, could not possibly develop a civilization that is, in all other respects, identical to the one we know.

    Imagination and compassion are fundamental to the development of culture, and our world, fallen as it is, would be in even more dire straits without them.

    I'm sure even an undergrad studying intellectual history could draw a line (not a direct one, to be sure, but a line) from the flourishing of the arts (lies! all lies!) in the Renaissance to the rise of the Enlightenment focus of science and thence the industrial revolution, which in turn gave birth to the great range of technologies that are taken for granted in the world in which the movie opens. How could anything at all be invented if someone didn't imagine it before it existed? And wouldn't any such imagination be, in the terms of the movie, a lie? So why aren't all the people in the movie still living in caves (with, of course, no cave paintings) and struggling just to survive?

  2. Rachel - I hadn't taken it as far back as the caves, but I think you are right there - imagination is part of progress, development and refinement of scientific thinking... to say the least!