All of these questions, and more, are evoked by Ricky Gervais's The Invention of Lying. Gervais is both writer and director of this lightweight comedy which starts off in a world where noone has ever lied — or even thought of doing so. In this society, not only do they not lie; they are completely ruthless at telling the whole truth even if it hurts others. Lying is not only nonexistent in personal life, but the very concept of fiction doesn't exist. Movies consist of actors merely reading historical facts.
Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is a screenwriter whose life is pretty boring, he can't get the girl of his dreams (easily played by Jennifer Gardner), and he has been fired from work for not being able to produce a movie that is successful. One day, he discovers the possibility of telling others things that are not true when he spontaneously lies about how much money he has in his bank account. His relationships improve, he acquires more things, he lies to his mother who is dying about life after death and to the whole world about the existence of a big man in the sky deciding the fate of everyone. Mark becomes famous and may even get the girl of his dreams after all.
The Invention of Lying has received very mixed reviews. Although the movie is not great literature, I found it conceptually provocative enough to enjoy it and evocative of the sorts of questions I have listed above at the beginning of this review.
The subject of lying is a complicated one because we can all think of situations in which we may justify not telling the exact truth — either by remaining silent or actively promoting a non-truth. Even the ninth of the Ten Commandments says we are not to bear false witness against a neighbour but it doesn't say that all lying is wrong.
In the Bible there are examples of lying for altruistic reasons. In relation to the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Shemesh (2002) offers some examples of lies that seem to be acceptable:
David lies to Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:3) and misleads King Achish of Gath (1 Sam. 21:14) in order to save his own life. Saul’s daughter Michal lies to her father’s messengers in order to save her husband David’s life (1 Sam. 19:11–16), and then lies to her father in order to escape his rage (1 Sam. 19:17). Jonathan, too, lies to his father to save his friend David’s life (1 Sam. 20:28–29), and the woman from Bahurim lies to Absalom’s servants to save David’s spies Ahimaaz and Jonathan, hidden in the well in her courtyard (2 Sam. 17:18–20). Proof that God may actually approve of such lies may be derived from His rewarding of the midwives in Egypt, who lied to Pharaoh out of compassion for the lives of the male children born to the Hebrew women (Exod. 1:15–21). A further indication to that effect
is the narrator’s comment concerning Hushai’s deception of Absalom by pretending to support him: “The Lord had decreed that Ahithophel’s sound advice be nullified, in
order that the Lord might bring ruin upon Absalom” (2 Sam. 17:14).
All of this is to merely point out that lying is not as black and white as we might like to think. In fact, as The Invention of Lying implies, a certain type of lying might very well be required for social facilitation. Every day most of us lie about how we are feeling or what we think of a colleagues new hair style if we are asked (for example).
Please don't misunderstand me. The Invention of Lying doesn't handle any of these issues with any sophistication. In fact, the exploration of lying in this story is quite superficial. For example, a good proportion of the movie is about the alleged delusional nature of a belief in God. While Christians will certainly quibble with this, many of the associated simplistic theologies about predestination, suffering, and God's intervention in life are quite rightly satirised as ridiculous. The scariest point in the movie is the way in which some people are prone to believe anything they are told.
Although The Invention of Lying could have been executed better, acted better, and explored the issues in more depth, the fact that it tackles such a significant subject has to be commended.
Shemesh, Y 2002, 'Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible', Janes, vol. 29, p. 84, <http://www.jtsa.edu/Documents/pagedocs/JANES/2002%2029/Shemesh29.pdf>.
'In its amiable, quiet, PG-13 way, The Invention of Lying is a remarkably radical comedy.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times
'Proof that when you aim for the stars, sometimes you find a black hole. Hopefully just an anomaly for the usually wonderful Gervais.' - Chris Hewitt/Empire
sexual references, coarse language, drug reference