Ricky Gervais is back on the big screen this week with The Invention Of Lying. The premise – in case you’ve missed the ads – is that in a world where everyone automatically speaks the truth, our Ricky is about to tell it like it isn’t.
This is his second starring role in a Hollywood comedy, after last year’s Ghost Town. This time, though, Gervais has much more at stake. He co-wrote the script and co-directed (both with Matthew Robinson), and he’s also a co-producer.
The first reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival were excellent (the Rotten Tomato rating as I write is standing at 100% fresh), but we’ve yet to see if mainstream America is in tune with the critics – if Gervais can make the transition from The Office to box office; Extras to movie star.
He’s hugely popular and highly esteemed in the US… or, more accurately, among the cultural sophisticates who tend to live on either the West Coast or the East Coast, and among his peers (which is why the new film is clogged with celebrity cameos by the likes of Edward Norton, Tina Fey and Christopher Guest). The truth is, most of the country only has the vaguest notion of who he is, and could care less.
Gervais himself seems painfully, almost obsessively aware that he’s not standard romantic leading man material – that’s one of the recurring jokes in Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying. Just the other day, presenting at the Emmys, he was at it again, joshing that this was a better fit for him than the Academy Awards, with all those movie stars. He felt more at ease among people who considered Steve Carrell handsome.
The gag wasn’t much – though above average on the night – but it was interesting to see the ripple of anxiety running through the room.
America may be obsessed with good looks, but you’re not supposed to say anything less than complimentary about anyone in a formal, pubic ceremony – save that stuff for the internet. No one seemed quite sure how to respond. Hadn’t Gervais just insulted the whole audience, en masse? And how was his Office stand-in Carrell supposed to react? Didn’t his executive producer realise that Carrell is a bone fide movie star in his own right – a bigger star than our Ricky, at any rate?
Of course it’s precisely this readiness to risk offence and mine the discomfort zone that makes Gervais such an extraordinary talent and made Extras and The Office two of the best TV shows of the last ten years. There are American stand up comics who will dare to plunge into the racial divide, and even expose politically incorrect sentiments from time to time (Louis CK, who plays Gervais’ drinking buddy in the new film is one of them). And a surprisingly good measure of the original’s befuddled “sensitivity training” survives in the US version of The Office. But it’s hard to think of the last Hollywood comedy that risked anything more substantial than male nudity and bong jokes.
Gervais has taken his time moving onto the big screen, and he’s done it on his own terms, accepting small roles to work with people he respects (Christopher Guest in For Your Consideration; De Niro in Stardust; Ben Stiller et al in Night at the Museum) and cleverly expanding his contacts book with Extras. He was involved in redrafting the screenplay for Ghost Town, and injected some of that caustic British edge to sharpen up the rom-com.
The Invention of Lying is more personal and more problematic. The premise is brilliant, but neither Gervais nor his codirector has handled a feature before, and it has a few wobbly moments where the energy sags, or the gears grind, or the balance feels off. It’s more than smart and funny enough that you can overlook the flaws, but when it comes to Gervais’s own screen persona it’s less convincing.
In the course of the movie, his character, Mark, becomes incredibly rich and successful; people hang on his every word – just like Ricky Gervais, you might say – but because of his snub nose and his refusal to work out he still can’t get the girl. Until, of course (this is Hollywood after all), he does.
For Gervais fans there are worrying signs of sentimentality here. He’s got to stop whining and feeling sorry for himself – he can’t play top dog and underdog at the same time. Let’s face it, we like him better when he’s not trying to be loveable, and that’s the truth.
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