Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Well, maybe.
The Invention of Lying is about a man who, as the title suggests, invents lying. He lives in a world much like ours, except that humans don't tell lies. In fact, they *cannot* tell lies. More than that, they cannot help but tell the truth at all times, it seems. So it is, in addition to being a world without lying, a world without tact, discretion, or a sense of fellow-feeling, a world in which people are cruel and callous and boorish... but honest. Brutally, unflinchingly, unfailingly honest. They don't even have the words "truth" and "lie" -- the concepts simply don't exist.
Now lest you think a world without falsehood and deception would be paradise indeed (in which case, you must be a Kantian), The Invention of Lying defends the radical thesis that lying is beneficial. A little white lie now and then would spare a poor shlub like Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) from hearing what his coworkers really think of him. He wouldn't get Too Much Information from his blind date Anna (Jennifer Garner) about how she gratifies herself, or about how he fails to measure up in the looks, income, and personality departments. He wouldn't be told, repeatedly and by seemingly everyone, that Anna is out of his league. And it would make Mark's job a lot easier. Mark, you see, is a screenwriter, but since there are no falsehoods, nor even embellishments, art simply does not exist. Instead, Mark writes dreary historical documentaries about the 13th century when, lets face it, not much that was very entertaining happened.
And then one day Mark somehow tells a lie, and since no one has ever lied before, no one has any reason to doubt Mark's veracity, and so his lies are wildly successful. Which is how he comes to invent religion, when he tells a beautiful lie about the afterlife, and a Man in the Sky, to comfort a dying woman. Word gets out. Mark has invented God.
So there you have it -- without lies and artifice, there could be no art, and people would be miserable because they would know the honest truth about everything. And without falsehood, fabrication and fiction, there would be no religion and no God. (Also, screenwriters are prophets!) Because humanity is so literal-minded, yet so ingenuous, Mark is forced to explain why the Man in the Sky is so mean. Why does he cause cancer, and burn down houses? Ah, but he also puts out fires and cures cancer! Mark does his best to defend the Man in the Sky against charges that he's a big fat jerk, but theodicy is a thankless job (and it's worth noting that, confronted with theodicies, Kant himself basically punted).
The Invention of Lying is wry and dry, and darkly, philosophically funny. It comes thisclose to being a really radical satire, and it could have been darker, and more philosophical for my taste, but it lazily drifts off into the safe territory of romantic comedy. The romance is funnier because it's completely one-sided, of course, since a world without lies is also a world without romance (take that, Keats!). Loser boy meets girl, girl rejects loser boy, loser boy wins! but still can't get girl, etc. Will Anna stop being such a shallow, callous creature and finally marry Mr. Right, who is both a big fat liar and a *hero*? This is where The Invention of Lying really lays it on thick, but we want movies to lie about love, right?
Speaking of a world without art, The Invention of Lying is, to be honest, a pretty crummy looking movie. Gervais (who invented the British version of *The Office*, and *Extras*) cowrote and codirected the movie with Matthew Robinson, and it looks about as bad and cheaply made as the pompous documentaries filmed by Mark's employers (the aptly named Lecture Films). Every expense was spared, apparently, in the filming of The Invention of Lying, although there's a crackerjack cast filled with topnotch talent (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, and Jeffrey Tambor, every one of whom, in some homage to verisimilitude, appears to have done his or her own hair and makeup). The Invention of Lying, like Mark Bellison, is kinda frumpy and dumpy looking on the outside, but on the inside, it's occasionally (if inconsistently) brilliant. No lie.