'Lying' about God onscreen

When it comes to comedian Ricky Gervais, journalist Paul Asay openly confesses that he is a fan. This may seem strange since Asay works for Plugged In, a media Web site sponsored by Focus on the Family -- a powerful brand name in evangelical media. Yes, he knows the hip writer, actor and director is a proud, articulate atheist. However, he also thinks that Gervais is "actually quite talented and a very funny guy."

Thus, Asay had mixed feelings when he reviewed, “The Invention of Lying,” the comedian’s new comedy. After all, Gervais had publicly pledged that it would be both a “sweet Hollywood” romantic comedy and the “first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.”

For Asay, watching the movie became a “frustrating, disturbing, deeply saddening experience. And it was funny. Which makes it, in some ways, that much worse.” While the movie displayed Gervais’ talents, it also revealed that he has “very little knowledge of what he seeks to skewer. He takes an infantile interpretation of spirituality -- one that most of us leave behind for deeper truths by the age of 3 or 4 and deconstructs it to the point of imbecility,” wrote Asay.

But here’s the plot twist. While “The Invention of Lying” has received bad reviews from most religious critics, it has not provoked headline-friendly calls to arms by the usual suspects on the religious right.

This has not, in other words, been “The DaVinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” or even the anti-faith “Religulous” sermon from provocateur Bill Maher. So far, the Gervais opus is drawing small crowds into theaters and zero protesters onto sidewalks. As it began its third week, it had grossed only $16,956,375 while sliding to 16th place at the box office.

“The whole movie industry today is such a one week and you’re done affair,” noted Asay. “If you don’t make waves right away, you’re kind of over. ... In retrospect, Gervais and his people may have wanted to pump up that atheism angle in the marketing to get a bigger splash in the press. They needed to do something.”

“The Invention of Lying” takes place in a parallel world in which people cannot lie. Thus, advertisements are rather blunt. The Pepsi slogan is, “When they don’t have Coke,” and a nursing home is called, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”

Then along comes Mark Bellison, a pudgy loser who, in a moment of desperation, intentionally overdraws his bank account and gets away with it. This discovery changes his life, but he also learns that lying cannot solve all his problems. In the movie’s pivotal scene, the liar played by Gervais comforts his dying mother by telling her she soon will be reunited with her loved ones in a land of peace, love and happiness, where there is no pain.

Hospital workers overhear this proclamation and the loser quickly becomes a pseudo-messiah, offering stunning revelations about a great “man in the sky” who controls people’s lives and decides whether they spend eternity in a good place (lots of ice cream) or a bad place.

Nevertheless, the prophet knows he is a fake. While visiting his mother’s grave he confesses, in a fit of guilt: “I know you’re not up there in a mansion. You’re right here in the ground and I’m the only one who knows that.”

It was impossible to watch that scene, and others in “The Invention of Lying,” without feeling some kind of compassion, said Thaisha Geiger, a language arts teacher who reviews movies for the ChristianAnswers.net Web site.

Since she was not familiar with Gervais, she did some online research to learn more about his beliefs. She was struck by the fact that Gervais lost his faith as a young child. However, he also told ShortList.com, “I always knew that if my mum asked me when she was dying if there was a heaven, I’d say yes. ... I think that’s how religion started — as a good lie.”

That painful conflict made it onto the screen, said Geiger.

“The movie really is about his beliefs ... so he was probably expecting Christians to yell and scream after they saw this movie,” she said. “But I didn’t feel anger when I saw it. I really walked away feeling sad. ... I thought, ‘He’s an atheist. We should pray for him.’ Maybe he’s disappointed that more people aren’t mad.”