Welcome to a world without lying. There’s no fiction, no filter, no white lies, and crime is tricky. Just ask Mark Bellison’s dad (played by Shaun Williamson aka Barry from EastEnders) who went to jail for burglary after getting caught (by Stephen Merchant in a funny hat) and unable to lie his way out of it. Mark (Ricky Gervais) is a script writer for the film industry where they crank out one documentary after another, and Mark has been assigned the 13th century, the century nobody really wants to know about. Fired for his inability to make the Black Plague interesting, Mark finds himself short on rent cash. At the bank, knowing all he has to withdraw is $300, something amazing happens in the synapse in his brain. He tells the teller he has $800 in his account. Mark Bellison has told the world’s first lie, and he walks away with his much-needed rent cash.
Based on the advice of his friends (Louis CK and Philip Seymore Hoffman), he tries to use his new superpower for evil, telling a woman he needs to have sex with her to stop the world from ending, but he chickens out because golly, he’s such a nice guy. Cue the montage of Mark using his deceptive abilities to help the homeless, spatting lovers, and sad old people. He gets his job back and asks a beautiful woman he likes, Anna (Jennifer Garner), on a date. But when he’s overheard lying to his dying mother, inventing the afterlife, the world turns their attention to him, demanding to hear more about what happens when you die and this man in the sky he’s supposedly getting information from.
From here, the movie takes a complete left turn and the rest is about Mark founding religion, becoming immensely successful (but still unable to convince Anna that he’s a good match for her because she doesn’t want kids with snub noses like his), and realizing that religion has created more problems than it fixed. Douchy co-worker Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) steals Anna away from Mark because he has good genetics, leaving it up to Mark to become the romantic hero and win back the girl.
This is a tricky movie to review. The first half is pretty much what you expect the movie is going to be. It’s going to be a rom-com with Ricky Gervais trying to win the affections of Jennifer Garner. It’s going to be about his success in the film industry and his invention of fiction. But when the second half becomes about religion, it does make you wonder whether this is brilliantly crafted atheist propaganda, as some claim, or just religion through the lens of someone who genuinely believes that religion wouldn’t exist if lying didn’t exist, as Gervais claims. Most of it is taken at face value: He fabricates the afterlife so that his mum doesn’t have to be scared while she’s dying; people stop putting effort into life because they’re all promised mansions in the sky after they die. But some of it is obviously cheeky jabs at religion like using pizza boxes as stone tablets for the commandments, and Gervais dressed up like Jesus. It’s a simple, visual gag, but it could be seen as blasphemous.
The only beef I have with this movie is that Mark–who Gervais goes out of his way to show is a decent guy merely down on his luck because no one can see past his looks–is so in love with Anna, who is gorgeous yet shallow, dumb, and not very independent. All she cares about is the way that her children will look (so much so she’s willing to marry Brad for his genes) and she lets her mother dictate who is and is not good enough to be her friend. With a personality like that, you kind of have to figure Mark mostly likes her for her looks. Eventually, he’s able to pull some genuine emotion out of her–she holds his hand when his mum died and truly loves being with him–but by that point, Mark’s already completely in love with her. So it’s hard to feel bad for Mark for being judged by appearance alone when he’s really just as shallow as the rest of them.
It’s a clever movie. It’s full of cameos, from Ed Norton to Tina Fey. And the little details are hilarious: Pepsi’s advertisement is “Pepsi. When they don’t have Coke.” There were other things they could have done with the film if religion didn’t hijack it partway through, and it’s not the most original format (What do you mean the protagonist gets the girl in the end?!), but it’s funny and worth seeing (as long as you’re not over-sensitive about religion jokes!).