Ricky Gervais’ (2009) film The Invention of Lying is set in a world where human beings have not evolved the fictional gene that allows them to lie.
Not only can’t they lie – which precludes the possibility of story-telling, mythology and, therefore, religion – but it seems that they have to actively tell the truth, which means that characters air their thoughts without regard for how these thoughts are received by others, since this is how the world has worked throughout centuries of human history.
Individual self-interest is palpable in this world, with the central female character, Anna (Jennifer Garner), primarily concerned with finding a sexual partner who is a good genetic, social and economic match (like Rob Lowe’s Brad). This leads unattractive, overweight, anti-social losers like Mark (Gervais), Greg (Louis C.K.) and Frank (Jonah Hill) to despair, drunkenness and depression.
When Mark one day evolves the lying gene, he hopes it will help him attain the wealth and status to attract Anna.
But the ability has worldwide theological and ethical consequences when he is overheard lying about life after death in an attempt to console his dying mother.
This is the point at which ‘the film swings off in a wild new direction’ and, according to one reviewer (Xan Brooks of The Guardian), ‘achieves vertiginous lift-off.’
His lie that he has new knowledge about what happens after you die – knowledge about heavenly mansions, given to him by a “Man in the Sky” – leads him to write a “Gospel” and to institute a new ethic of “three strikes and you’re out.” Thus this-worldly self-interest morphs easily into otherworldly self-interest and the sentiment, expressed by a homeless man’s placard, ‘screw it, soon I’ll be in my mansion’ (The Invention of Lying).
For a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy, this is perhaps ‘something rather radical,’ indeed. ‘It’s one thing for Gervais to air his atheism on the standup circuit. It’s quite another to do so in the guise of a glossy, user-friendly sitcom pitched squarely at the huddled masses in the American multiplex’ (Brooks, "The Invention of Lying: Ricky Gervais' new comedy is glossy, but honestly subversive," The Guardian, Oct 2 2009).