God loves a trier, which is ironic when the trier in question is devout atheist Ricky Gervais. Never one to dwell on his achievements - both The Office and Extras refused to outstay their welcome - and after just a clutch of acting gigs stateside, his first real stab at steering a major Hollywood project has resulted in this curious portion of philosophical fluff.
Gervais takes the lead as Mark, an out-and-out loser, about to lose his job and get kicked out of his flat. The one thing he has to cling to is a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), a beautiful specimen who has no reluctance to tell him how undesirable he is, or how low her expectations are for the date.
It’s not that she’s mean, it’s just because they both live in a world where nobody lies. Gervais gets great mileage out of this idea in a smartly scripted, if not so smartly directed or acted, opening section - brutal put-downs are exchanged at a dazzling rate, while the world of advertising is a gloriously different place than it is in our world.
On his fiscal uppers, Mark one day inadvertently tries it on at a bank. When they allow him to withdraw more than he has in his savings, a sizeable lightbulb flashes as Mark realises his luck is well and truly in. Eventually sussing how to get the best out of his new-found trick of not telling the truth, Mark reinvents himself, manoeuvring his way into Anna’s affections, though he also uses his gift to help others a bit while he’s at it.
Tragedy then strikes, as on his mother’s deathbed, he tells her there’s eternal bliss in the afterlife to ease her suffering. Word spreads rapidly about this heavenly realm and Mark is cast as a kind of prophet, leading to him getting all Moses and creating a set of Commandments with some Pizza Hut boxes. Which is all nice and that, but that causes its own set of problems, not least in that he’s still in a battle to overcome Anna’s maternal concerns over Mark’s fatboy genetics, made all the worse by the lurking presence of chiselled-jawed DNA-match arsehole Brad (Rob Lowe). Surely too, Mark must have some major uppance to come for his dastardly discovery?
Despite the mixed reaction it received and the uneven balance of comedy and drama, it’s hard to write it off totally. It’s pretty brave of Gervais to attempt to break the faith-loaded American mainstream by openly suggesting that religion is built on falsehood, and the underlying message is a pretty weighty satirical swipe that those familiar with his podcasts and stand-up will recognise.
Despite getting plenty of arfs out of the idea of a world where even the social nicety of lying is absent, and with an often snappy and cutting script, its premise is shot through with flaws - the lesser characters are far too one-note - maybe these people can’t lie, but conflicting emotions would surely have given them a a less-simpleton texture. This is all steeped in a Stepford Wives-esque delivery that is at times enjoyably idiosyncratic, at all other times infuriating.
Gervais himself makes for an odd central character. His Office and Extras shtick is reliant on the subtlety that exists beneath the broad arseholiness of his characters - they’re dicks, but you need the empathy he teases out the bland reality of many of the people around us. By having to make the comedy and delivery chunkier to fill the multiplexes, much of this is neutered.
On top of that, Ricky lacks big-screen quality or fluid acting chops - his persona just doesn’t come across well enough to carry the picture and it feels like he’s sucking the film into a black hole, especially when he roams away from his stock-in trade of painful embarrassment. Had Ricky’s buddy Ben Stiller taken the role, who aces at believable losers you can engage with, you feel it might have been a bit more notable.
Overall, it’s a swell and interesting idea, but would have worked better if it hadn’t sought to appease a mass audience at the same time.
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe
Directed by: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Extras: featurettes, vodcasts, deleted scenes, gag reel