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The Lens: The Most Important Movie Ever Made!!! (OK, that's not exactly true...)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2009 - Ricky Gervais is a strange kind of comic talent, assuming a comic persona in which the ruthlessness of a comic viewpoint tearing into the world is awkwardly set against the image of an ordinary person - a loser, he'd be sure to say - who's afraid he's just said the wrong thing.

In his series "Extras" (his best work, in my opinion), he plays an actor who rises from the lowest of parts into an embarrassing level of TV fame, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way his earlier frustration as a struggling extra allows him to become more self-indulgent once he's become a recognizable name. In one episode, he uses his newfound recognition to command a choice table in a restaurant, only to be knocked back down to size a little later when a bigger celebrity, David Bowie, needs the space.

That's typical of Gervais: He's acerbic - but humble. (It doesn't apply, however, to his stand-up routines, which tend to leave out the humility.)

"The Invention of Lying," Gervais' first film as co-writer and director, taps into the conflicted characters he'd played earlier but within a slightly more demanding narrative.

"Lying" takes place in a world where no one is capable of saying anything that isn't true. Commercials simply state that they're trying to convince the viewer to buy something. Nursing homes are labeled as places where old people go to die. Because there's no concept of fiction, movies simply consist of commentators reading accounts of historical events.

Gervais plays an out-of-luck screenwriter who, from necessity, happens to develop an ability to make things up, with his every utterance taken at face value by the rest of the world.

But Gervais, as you might have heard, has (shudder) ... an agenda! After consoling his dying mother with promises of an afterlife, he is besieged by people wanting to know more, so he reluctantly becomes a spokesman/prophet. In the film's best scene, he delivers his own version of the Ten Commandments, written on the back of two pizza boxes.

At that point, the film turns into a kind of moral fable about good intentions and the ease in which people fall into wishful thinking, even with the best intentions. You can draw your own conclusions from there.

"The Invention of Lying" is a slight, off-the-cuff film, but that's part of its appeal, compared to the aggressive technique of most current film comedies - the ones where the hero not only outwits his rival but arranges for him to be spray-painted yellow and fall head first into a passing fertilizer truck while hero and best friend exchange freeze-framed high-fives.

"The Invention of Lying" may rest on a variation of high concept comedies like "Bruce Almighty" or "Liar Liar," but Gervais' approach is more casual, willing to let a scene peter off without a big punchline. He's content to simply raise a comic point without having to create some flashy payoff. Neither he, nor the film, ever loses those central attitudes of disbelief and bemusement. He's merely raised the stakes for them.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.

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