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"The Invention of Lying:" Review and Commentary

Updated on October 5, 2009

Is Truth Really Preferable To Fiction?

            This movie premiered last Friday (October 2, 2009). I saw it last night. It presents a thought-provoking “what-if” scenario: what if human beings had never evolved the ability to lie, about ANYTHING? What if everyone always told the unadorned, blunt and sometimes cruel truth?

            To some, including yours truly, this scenario initially sounded attractive. For the most part, I despise when people lie to each other and themselves about really important things (e.g., politicians about their true intentions for the sake of getting elected, potential significant others about life goals for the sake of going to bed with someone, etc., oneself about one’s true motivations for doing something, etc.). However, when taken to the extreme, if this movie’s portrayal of it is to be “BELIEVED,” telling the truth all the time can have some unpleasant side effects. The fact that the citizens of this fictional (!!!) world never knew anything different doesn’t make it any better. Mere ignorance is NOT bliss, in this case. Here are a few examples:

(1)   Most people seem pretty miserable most of the time, and never hesitate to tell everyone about it. Not only is there no active lying, there is no tact either—these people never learned the value of just shutting up! For example, in the scene where Mark (Ricky Gervais) and Anna (Jennifer Garner) are on their first date, Anna explains to the waiter WHY she ordered the salad and, when ordering a drink, immediately adds that’s she’s going to have several more before the night is over. In this world, that would be considered “TMI,” while there, it’s commonplace. As for the misery, the fact that people can’t even tell themselves “little white lies” in order to feel a little bit better  makes their very real problems even worse. Mark’s neighbor Frank (Jonah Hill) describes in great detail how he spent half the night researching ways to kill himself. Great topic of conversation, huh? Finally, the office lady, Shelly (Tina Fey) will not stop repeating “But you ARE going to get fired” even when Mark has had enough of discussing it. Can constant dwelling on unpleasant truths make for a happy life? I really don’t think so.

(2)   Due to the fact that everyone presents the truth, all the time, there is no need to look beyond what is immediately apparent, either through physical appearance or cold hard fact. People are incredibly shallow. Anna’s reason for marrying someone is “genetic, social and economic compatibility,” period. It takes her until the very end of the movie to realize that perhaps the fact (?!?) that someone makes you happy can be a valid reason too, even if that someone’s genetic contribution will result in “little fat kids with snub noses.” These people can’t even read body language. My guess is that the social sciences do not exist in this world.

(3)   It’s an incredibly dull and boring existence. No lying equals no FICTION, either. Until Mark has his revelation in the bank, did anyone even have the capacity for imagination? If so, every human being on that version of Earth let it die. Movies consist of a single so-called “actor” sitting and reading an historical narrative. Even those of us who are fans of THE HISTORY CHANNEL can’t watch it ALL the time (and those shows have re-enactments by real actors, at least!) Mark’s 700-year-old “scroll” was probably the most exciting thing any of his colleagues had ever heard in their lives, at least until “the man in the sky….”

(4)   The movie makes some very interesting points about religious/spiritual beliefs, implying that they all originated with a group of lies that someone just invented overnight and posted on a couple of pizza box lids…er…tablets. (The scene later on when Mark rolls out of bed looking like a classical depiction of Jesus is hilarious, IMO.) Debates between hardcore religious people and hardcore atheists continue to rage, with the latter group claiming that “deceiving” people about an afterlife is wrong and illogical and just leads to more problems. Considering all of the wars that have been fought, and are still being fought, over religious differences, some people might say that the atheists make a valid point. There is a scene where Mark’s mother is dying and terrified about passing into oblivion, so he makes up “the mansion” that everyone gets to live in after they die in order to give her some comfort. She dies with a literal smile on her face. This seems to suggest that for many of us, religion and spirituality can be very necessary to our lives, even if one can make an argument that they are “technical” lies—that is, unprovable by scientific fact. (BTW, if I have offended anyone, I apologize. I imagine the movie itself may have had the same effect.) I suppose it all comes down to personal opinion. The crowd of people receiving Mark’s message from “the man in the sky” seemed to take to it very well, for the most part. As in the “real world,” for some people in Mark’s world religion works, while for others it doesn’t.

The question this movie raises is the following: is lying necessary to maintain society as we know it? Deception exists among every animal species for the sake of survival: prey animals use camouflage, distraction and other tactics to avoid becoming a meal for a predator. Predators use stalking techniques so they will not be detected by prey until it is too late for them to escape becoming a meal. Are humans—that is, real-world humans—actually all that different? Would we want to be that different? As much as honesty is extolled as a virtue, how much pure honesty can we really swallow? Do we really want to hear that our newborn is “so ugly…like a little rat”? How about hearing “I’ve always hated you” right after being fired?  Furthermore, even writing fiction (which can range from stories to songs to poetry) requires creativity, which (apparently) is a form of telling falsehoods. Can anyone reasonably say that such creativity is a “vice?” I hope not!

Overall, I found this movie to be thought-provoking, well-written and clever. As a Criminal Justice student, I have devoted my academic life to the pursuit of “truth.” However, every time I pick up a novel or turn on the latest episode of HOUSE, I know very well that what I am about to read or see is a work of pure fiction. What’s so wrong with that?

(P.S. All of the above may or may not be entirely true. Let’s call the ambiguous parts “the opinions of the writer” or a slightly misquoted quotation. Thank you all for reading.)


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    • conundrum profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thanks for reading and commenting, wannabwestern!

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 

      9 years ago from Iowa

      This is an excellent movie review that also offers some food for thought on the ethics of lying. Thanks for another awesome hub, Conundrum!


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