Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's the Invention of Something, all right!

I understand that Ricky Gervais is a comic genius. I've seen him and liked him well enough on 60 Minutes, I've seen him get on well with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I know he does everything from TV to movies to kids books called Flanimals, and Lord knows how much else. And yet... well, to put it this way, to claim that he has an "Everyman" appeal, somehow that part doesn't work for me. To have everyman appeal, you have to have a certain humility, or at least know how to fake it. I don't get that from Gervais. But if I did, and if I were a diehard Ricky Gervais fan, I'd defend The Invention of Lying to my last breath... or would I? Even though it stands proud and tall on the shoulders of so many films before it... Groundhog Day comes to mind as the main one... it does manage to find a slightly unique spin on things that hasn't quite been explored yet; at least, Gervais Style. The premise is, as he explains up top, it's an alternate reality that one might find in an old Twilight Zone where everyone tells the truth. It's pretty much life as we know it right now already, but the dialogue's obviously tweaked for comedic purposes, and more specifically, for Gervais' own unique comedic purposes, which are an awful lot like Larry David's in Curb Your Enthusiasm, only people don't shout at Gervais. Even the most die-hard Gervais fan would have to admit that The Invention of Lying commits crimes of egotism and narcissism and self-congratulation that damn few others would be allowed to get away with.

Having come to these painful realizations, will I ever find like-minded critics out there who agree with me? Ebert: no. He's clearly in the tank. The Onion didn't even dare review it. The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, both didn't quite fall head over heels for it, but they don't want to beat up on Gervais too much, either. For example, they note that Gervais delivers his explanation of the afterlife on two pizza boxes. If this were a Michael Bay movie, they would most assuredly point out that they were prominently displayed Pizza Hut boxes, and that this was indeed a sad co-opting of the cinema by evil corporate forces. Gervais himself goes easy on Pizza Hut, who don't call themselves something truthful like "a miserable excuse for a pizza place" or "worse than ketchup-covered road pancakes." No, his harshest criticism goes to Pepsi and Coke... and yet, it still feels like they were willing corporate participants. The film's premise allows other Truth in Advertising opportunities on the sides of buildings, like an old folks' home that says "A Sad Place for Old People to Go and Die"... something like that. And again, the Simpsons have been doing this for years. Justice For Most ring a bell? Or how about "Gummi Bears: They Hibernate in your Colon"? "Lunkheadz: A Place for Drooling"? Anyone? Oh, to be a lone Simpson fan in the wilderness...

Cameos abound: more cameos than an Adam Sandler picture, I dare say: Edward Norton, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from the Pirate Radio set, obviously. In fact, Sandler film veteran Jonah Hill shows up! Why he's not playing Larry in the new Farrelly Bros. Three Stooges movie is beyond me. Haverchuck from Freaks and Geeks shows up as the first of many disgruntled waiters... oh yeah, I remember! I keep that candle in the window! There's probably other cameos I'm forgetting... oh, right, The Daily Show's John Hodgman and Nathan Corddry show up. I guess Ricky really did piss of Ed Helms that one time, huh? As for Tina Fey, well, she's almost as beloved as Ricky Gervais so naturally she'd have a part in this. After all, she singlehandedly turned SNL into the progressive workplace it now is. Suck it, Ana Gasteyer! All that work with Will Ferrell for nothing, bitch!

Anyway, I will give kudos to the script construction, which at least scales the heights of its premise. Again, like Groundhog Day, it makes almost the most of its insular universe, but I must not have been enjoying myself since I wondered aloud when religion was going to enter the picture. First comes the Superhero moment / Origin Sequence in the bank, then the gathering of riches... I guess insurance companies just wouldn't make it in Gervais Land... and then, when riches can't solve all ills, like saving the dying, religion. The Catholic League, well, if they didn't get up in arms over this film for its take on religion, and putting Gervais on the wall of the church, they're obviously slacking off on the job and have fallen under Gervais' seductive spell as well. I'd be more interested in how someone would invent the idea of a man in the sky in this alternate universe, but the film doesn't have the time for such silly questions. If the word 'truth' doesn't exist in this universe, why should the word 'God'? And frankly, one dip inside Ricky's pulsating brain was quite enough, thank you very much. I must be getting squeamish in my old age. And I'm no Jesus freak, but even I thought it was a bit much when Bellison's facial hair looked like, well, it looked pretty holy, yet well manicured. Not scraggly enough. I'll bet the real J-Man had white guy dreadlocks and beads in his beard. Some have theorized aloud that this was the character's Brian Wilson phase, but I say, oh, it's better than Brian Wilson. I mean, did Brian invent Flanimals or, better yet, a whole new religion? I mean, besides Pet Sounds and Smile. Okay, bad example, but I guess that makes Louis C.K. Dr. Eugene Landy. A red-headed, balding, son of Charles Grodin Dr. Eugene Landy.

And since this is a comedy written by men, they're naturally going to put the women characters in as poor of a light as possible. But I always try to look on the bright side: at least Anna, the love interest that's too far out of Gervais' league, she believes in science... genetics is still a science, right? I mean, we all want the best for ourselves. Shlubs want babes, too! Gervais picked Jennifer Garner to play the love interest and not Camryn Manheim. But I must say, her lips looked a tad unnatural. And someone in the past complained about the Hollywood ladies working out way too much, to the point of losing their cute baby fat. Garner was one of the examples of the new breed of streamlined Hollywood fembots. Gervais and company merely point to the larger trend, but don't quite satirize it: it does seem like the world's attention span is shortening further thanks to the internet, and the pressure is mounting on the remaining cadre of handsome and beautiful people, and the ability to join their ranks. They may just be sperm donors, but handsome sperm donors still trump all. The Time Machine's prophecy of Morluks and Eloi is where we're headed, let's face it... man, that's some depressing sh... stuff to grapple with. Let's skip it for now. It'll most assuredly come up later, though. Hollywood's still sorting these issues out.

Cinematography: I've been seeing a lot of Suhrstedt's work lately! Extract, and this... oh, crap. I actually SAW some of Frank McKlusky, C.I. I was home alone, it was on cable! It was like a car wreck, I tells ya. If HE had to tell the truth, I'd dare venture a guess he'd reply that Mike Judge is more fun to work with. I dare say either Fantasia 2000 or Idiocracy is his masterpiece... I'll go with Idiocracy.

The Village Voice did go so far as to say that Gervais and company should've done another draft of the screenplay. Just what I was thinking. For example, If Gervais REALLY wanted to deliver biting satire, he'd tell Garner that he's better than Rob Lowe because of the British accent. I mean, let's face it: the colonies are still all too eager to be led by the token British dude, even if he's a bit pudgy. Gervais does have a handsome chin, I'll give him that. Just go to the gym a little more often, buddy! You're so close! Do like Stephen Lang for Avatar or something... okay, maybe not that far.

As most often happens, the superpower is never shared. Bill Murray's alone in his Groundhog Day time warp. No one else gets bitten by the super spider in Spider Man. The Incredibles is obviously a neo-Eugenics screed. And the other one I was thinking of... damn! What was it? Oh, right! Dr. Detroit from Watchmen... I mean, how much of a fluke was that? You'd think the government, if they were using him to win the Vietnam War, surely they'd be trying to create duplicates of this guy! So, as usual, the superpower is fiercely guarded... until the end, when they finally do have those damn kids we spend the whole pic hearing about, and like The Incredibles, in this alternate reality, those lucky enough to win the genetic lottery get to share the super secret bounty.

But I must concede the film did have its moments. I did like the part where he's reading the manuscript he found in the desert, and it had the foresight to include his mean co-workers! Excellent. If I were writing it, I would've called them "boogerheads", but I guess that's a little too juvenile. And I dare say Gervais deserves an Oscar nomination for his hospital scene by his mother's side. It was that convincing, and yes, that good. Plus, our Academy loves the British. Also, Woody Allen just called. He wants his font back!!

In the DVD's favor, we didn't have to sit through the usual two minutes of those damn commentary warnings. Now they're in French and Spanish, no less! I thought there were six DVD regions in the world! And they did have a couple vanity logos; forgivable in this case, I guess. But I have to give it two and a half stars since there was a lot of squirming amongst my viewing companions and a call for a vote to move on to the next bit of entertainment. How they made Massachusetts look so boring I just don't want to contemplate. And I guess the IMDb budget information's correct now; back in the day it said the film cost $4 million to make. Er, I don't think so. All those big stars? All that big expensive movie lighting? Shoot. 18.5 is more like it.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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