Ricky Gervais has two settings, lunkhead and smarty-pants, and with the canniness of a performer who knows his limitations, he tailored a television series to suit each one. In The Office, he portrayed a man oblivious to his own wretchedness, while Extras hinged on his character's cringing awareness of the shortfall between dreams and reality. In The Invention of Lying, the dial remains turned to "self-aware". As the downtrodden scriptwriter Mark Bellison, Gervais wears a sorrowful expression which suggests a soufflé that not only knows it will never rise, but dreads the prospect of disappointing the chef.
He has a grand face for comedy, that much we know. But The Invention of Lying, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson, isn't worthy of him. (It's not worthy of Joe Pasquale, come to that.) If you want a measure of how bad the picture is, try this: it ends with the hero interrupting a wedding to implore his ideal woman not to marry a jerk, and that isn't even the worst thing about it.
The film is set in a parallel reality where honesty is a biological imperative rather than an option. We know this because Gervais tells us so in an explanatory voice-over, which reeks of a classic, studio-imposed compromise. The effect is to remove any sting from the first scene, in which Mark picks up his date, Anna (Jennifer Garner), only for her to confess that she is pessimistic about the evening ahead, and that sex will most definitely not be on the cards. She points out that Mark is overweight and snub-nosed, an insult which is then repeated so often in the film that it feels as if Gervais is inviting us to disagree. But self-deprecation works best in small doses. Administered in these industrial quantities, it becomes known as fishing for compliments.
The Invention of Lying is what used to be called a "high-concept" movie - one that can be boiled down to a simple, dazzling idea. And it does have the makings of a corker. Visiting his bank, Mark requests more funds than he has in his account; the teller obliges, and so Mark discovers the capacity to lie. It becomes a kind of omnipotence, allowing him to contradict a cop, win favour at work, land another date with Anna, and even create religion, all through the power of assertion.
If the notion of one man manipulating the world around him has a slight "groundhog day" feel to it, that can only be because the film pays extensive homage to, well, Groundhog Day. Only they wouldn't call it a homage where Mark comes from, that's for sure.
It doesn't take long to realise that the picture is as disingenuous as its hero. What it presents is not a population unable to lie, but one prone to the compulsive revelation of personal secrets. A waitress announces, apropos nothing, that she wanted to be a stripper, but didn't have the looks. A waiter dishes out menus to diners with the words, "I'm really embarrassed to work here." Taken to their logical conclusion, these confessions would have to be offered to every customer, every night, which would be unworkable.
Then again, if the plotting were watertight, such spoilsport objections would be unlikely to arise. The spell that is vital to any fantasy has no chance of taking hold under an onslaught of invidious questions. Why is Mark surprised by people's bluntness when anyone living in such a world would have been born with a thick skin? Why is his father cowed by the threat of being unmasked as a burglar, when honesty would have forced him to own up publicly to his career choices? And so on. Even the candour of a soft drinks ad ("Pepsi - when they don't have Coke") fades next to our own reality, where the logos of tobacco companies are eclipsed on cigarette cartons by the message "Smoking kills".
The most perverse aspect of the film is that it demands an emotional complexity of Gervais that he is not equipped to deliver; if he hadn't made the picture himself, you'd swear it represented an attempt to discredit him as an actor. He will recover - he has an outstanding track record on his side -but this movie is dead in the water. Perhaps it shouldn't have been released so much as carried through the streets by pallbearers.