Things are rarely what they seem — and why not, people don’t always see the truth and sometimes they lie. The British humorist Jerome Jerome put it perfectly: It is always the best policy to speak the truth — unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar. Especially if you’re lying for laughs.
Jim Carrey did exactly that in 1997’s well-regardedLiar Liar. He trotted out the contortions and character tics that routinely punctuate his comedies. Clearly, Liar Liar succeeded on one level: It earned more than $300 million, but does this movie exhaust the topic of deception onscreen?
You’ll see a different approach in the just-released The Invention of Lying, written and directed by Ricky Gervais. He created the original version of The Office, as well cable’s Extras and starred in Ghost Town. Gervais knows how to get a laugh.
Both movies come at deception from different angles — but this Smackdown looks for the stronger hand when both are lying for laughs.
Mark Bellison (Gervais) writes screenplays in a world where no one lies. Everyone he meets in The Invention of Lying offers the painful truth: Mark’s a chubby little guy with a stub nose. Coworkers don’t like Bellison and let him know he’ll be fired. He can’t light a spark with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who doesn’t regard Bellison a suitable genetic match. At his mother’s deathbed, Mark discovers the power of deception. He tells her a giant man in the sky told him there’s a mansion awaiting her in the afterlife and mom will be surrounded by everyone she ever loved. In fact, no one told Mark anything, but the word gets out. He becomes an international figure of renown in a world where he is the only liar. Anna still doesn’t like her genetic prospects with Bellison although she sees he is smart, thoughtful and kind. Before long, matters spin out of control. Mark can’t help embellishing the lie when his version doesn’t stretch far enough to answer everyone’s needs. It’s nearly enough to drive him into comfortable self-imposed isolation. But this is a comedy, after all, and matters are resolved in a manner that will make you think The Graduate.
The Defending Champion
Liar Liar follows a couple of days in the life of lawyer Fletcher Reede (Carrey) who can never tell the truth (Is that such a stretch?). His lying succeeds in the workplace, but cost Reede a marriage and threatens to destroy his relationship with his son, Max. The boy introduces the movie’s central story element through a birthday wish that his dad would stop lying for 24 hours. It works. This development tortures Fletcher because now, he cannot lie to coworkers, his client or the judge in a divorce case. This gives Carrey a green light for his collection of odd faces and strange sounds. Ultimately, Fletcher finds a way to keep his heart intact and succeed with the truth. Your standard issue happy ending.
Director Tom Shadyac has fine material to work with in Liar Liar. The script from Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur is smart, funny and reaches for more than just laughs. Good, even performances from Maura Tierney, Cary Elwes, Amanda Donahoe and Jennifer Tilly stand in sharp contrast with Jim Carrey’s antics.
By contrast, The Invention of Lying is more of an ensemble piece. Gervais’ snarky humanity nicely integrates good performances from Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Tina Fey and Rob Lowe.
Both movies are funny (and Invention of Lying will surely discomfort some viewers over its treatment of religious belief) and both reaffirm Mark Twain’s notion that “when in doubt..tell the truth.”
The big difference lies in the performance of the protagonists. I appreciate that Jim Carrey fashioned a long comedy career through great timing and over the top characters. Those same elements turn up in Ace Ventura, The Mask, The Cable Guy, Bruce Almighty, and here. After a short while this stuff becomes more annoying, less funny.
Ricky Gervais also offers a certain consistency, but of a different sort. He’s always a Brit, always finding humor and humanity in human characters like Mark Bellison. The tone is even, and this treatment regards supporting actors as more than furniture (spotting the cameo appearances by Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Guest and Stephanie March is fun). By contrast, many of Jim Carrey’s choices are frequently too loud, often not very credible. One actor offers charm, the other an imitation of early Jerry Lewis. You can guess which is which.
A clear winner? Read on.
This is harder than it seems. Both films are well written for laughs, but wrap up the loose ends a little too predictably. The supporting casts perform well but this is not Masterpiece Theatre. Both movies are fairy tales that ask you to avoid judging too critically.
Liar Liar and Invention of Lying really separate when the comparison centers on the lead actors. Both perform well, but Jim Carrey blunts the comedic effect by simply being too much: the pratfalls, the non-stop mugging and vocal clutter do him no favor. We’ve seen all this before, perhaps too often.
Ricky Gervais doesn’t let his performance get out of hand. It’s funny, suits the material and adds a dimension of humanity that is.. well, charming. That difference provides the margin for our winner, The Invention of Lying.