Smile Politely

Not busy seeing Avatar a fifth time? Maybe you could rent these movies

I don’t know how you guys feel, but politics and obviousness aside, Avatar rocks. And it’s also led to a number of shared experiences among people my age who both love it and hate it. Like: two words suddenly dawned on me during that scene when Sam Worthington-Smurf and Zoe Saldana-Smurf are woken by a bulldozer after their alien-copulation: “Fern Gully.” It’s not like Fern Gully is the only environmentalist movie made, or even the only movie about deforestation. And it’s not like Avatar has fairies and anthropomorphic bats, exactly, but something about that scene screams, to people younger than 32 or so, FERN GULLY! I was amused and excited to find that so many people, both those who hated the movie and those, like me, who loved it, had this exact same reaction.

Anyway, when you’re not at Avatar, there’s this institution called “home video” that includes devices like DVD players and Blu-Ray whatchamacallits. Here are two brand-newish things that you can watch from the comfort of your home, either through some giant corporate mail-order thing, or from a certain last remaining independent video store in Champaign-Urbana, which has dozens of thousands of movies besides these two new ones, including other new ones and many, many not-so new ones. And 1500 of these so-called Blu-Ray thingies.

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais’s latest bid at true U.S. stardom, by its finale, is clearly suffering from some sort of High Concept Fatigue, whereby both viewers and almost assuredly the filmmakers realize, “When I (heard that this was/pitched this as) ‘a film about a man who invents lying in a world where no one lies,’ I didn’t realize I would have to (watch/come up with) 100 minutes of movie.” It’s the same sort of weariness you might feel at the end of Speed or Air Force One when you realize faithfulness with which those films stick to their High Concept, Die Hard on a (bus/plane).” That’s not to say The Invention of Lying isn’t funny, because certainly it is. But we get the joke and, even after the film’s second-act metaphysical turn, the Concept begins to wear thin, and through whatever remains glare the plotholes that we’ve willfully ignored the whole time.

Why, for instance, if this is simply a world that doesn’t lie, is everyone constantly offering up unprompted truths? There are only so many ways that someone can tell Ricky Gervais that he’s fat and ugly before we start noticing that no character actually ever asked their opinion of his appearance. The inability to lie shouldn’t make you a complete open book, just an easily openable book. And when this occurs to you, several other gaping holes, previously ignored so you could laugh at the gags, become obtrusively, naggingly present.

On the other hand, the film, oddly enough for a High Concept, pretty-cheap-gag-based comedy, has something to say. Lies are important to us, to the functioning not only of society but of a just and fair society, is what it is trying to tell us, clearly. A much more lucid thematic vein is about religion: basically, that religion is a comforting lie you can tell to your dying mother. (Beginning to see why this film didn’t do all that well with American audiences?) It follows that the man who invents lying is also the man who invents fiction (that no one knows is untrue) and then religion, the myth of the “Man in the Sky”—a story that everyone believes, because no one knows what lying or a myth is.

Despite the film’s thematic ambition and genuinely funny moments, something still feels inexorably thin about the whole thing. It tries to beef itself up with an endless parade of celebrity cameos or near-cameos (Tina Fey, Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John Hodgman, Martin Starr, Christopher Guest, Jonah Hill are all on screen for probably a combined six minutes), but relying heavily on cameos is almost always a bad sign. Just look at The Hangover and its dull, strangely unironic (or at least safely ironic) use of Mike Tyson, the disgrace(d/ful) former boxer/non-actor with a tattoo on his face.

(At least The Invention of Lying was funnier than Hangover and had more originality and comedic talent in any given thirty seconds than Hangover did in its whole running time. As you can tell, I’m a little mixed on this film. And a little surprised that The Hangover has a Golden Globe. Really, it wasn’t unfunny, but an award? Really? If that movie gets a Golden Globe, then Anchorman deserved to sweep the ’04 Oscars. I’m just saying.)


I have to admit that I was about six beers deep when I started this film, and I had just watched the absolutely dreadful RocknRolla, also completely coincidentally starring Gerard Butler and Ludacris, so maybe I wasn’t in the most accepting of moods, especially after I found out that this movie also starred Leonidas and the “Move, Bitch” guy. But it was just. Awful. You may think this movie has something to say, in a trashy-but-surreptitiously-clever way a la Paul Verhoeven, about society and video game culture, etc., but it actually seems to take a perverse pleasure in surrogate violence and rape. Formally messy—so much so it ruins the goofy action scenes that should be guiltily pleasurable, especially on six beers—thematically malformed, and a cheap rip off of, of all things, Running Man, this movied sucked. Hard.

Next Week on From the Box

Did you know my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger line is from the aforementioned Running Man? “Well I hope you left enough room for my fist because when I find you I’m going to ram it into your stomach and break your goddamn spine!” read without punctuation, without spaces almost, in a heavy Austrian accent. Wonderful. Gamer just needed Schwarzenegger and it would have been more bearable.

Next week is a veritable laundry list of shit I don’t want to see, so I may have to improvise. Or watch Whip It. We’ll see.

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