Mum?s the Word: Mark hangs with his mother, hides white lies behind a genial leer.

Depressives, shallow singles, and overeducated waiters who are embarrassed by their jobs are as prevalent in our society as those cheerful, utterly rhetorical “How are you?”s. But aside from Woody Allen-esque neurotics, most won’t confess their insecurities within a minute of meeting someone new. That’s not the case in The Invention of Lying, a bizarro world presented by co-writers/directors Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson in which all people not only tell the truth—they spill their thoughts as soon as one pops into their brains. So a blind date between an unsuccessful, somewhat portly screenwriter named Mark (Gervais) and a lovely, doesn’t-want-fat-kids woman named Anna (Jennifer Garner) is hilariously frank and awkward, with compulsive exchanges about masturbating, disappointment, and the fact that there’s no way he’s getting any tonight—or probably ever. Ads offer no embellishment (“Pepsi: When They Don’t Have Coke”), and buildings sport utilitarian names (A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People). Because there are no secrets, Mark knows he’s about to get fired from his job writing historical movies, and the staff at the Hopeless Old People home tell him on a daily basis that his mother will die at any moment. Life, obviously, is looking pretty bad—until Mark gets the sudden inspiration to “say what wasn’t” when he’s withdrawing money at the bank; the teller believes Mark has more money in his account than the computer says he does. When he tries to explain the concept of duplicity, no one understands what he means, so Mark just continues to tell white lies both for his own benefit and to brighten the miserable lives of others. After a sharp, smart opening act, though, this is where The Invention of Lying begins to wobble. Mark’s do-gooder-ism gets a little eye-rolling; a returned emphasis on the story’s romantic-comedy bent turns gooey and predictable. But the film’s unfortunate veers are nicely countered with a bit of subversion in which Mark, to soothe his mother and then the rest of the world, makes up the ideas of heaven, hell, and a “man in the sky.” Yes, folks: Here, God is a lie, and those who believe otherwise (besides Mum, of course) are portrayed as fools. Mark’s sudden promotion to prophet is edgy and entertaining, rife with sight gags (pizza boxes as commandment tablets) and legitimate spiritual questions (how many bad things can you do and still get into heaven?). Cameos by A-listers also help smooth the movie’s wrinkles. And Gervais, as always, presents a masterful blend of physical comedy and verbal bumbling that still lets him seem like the only reasonable person in the room. Mark’s sin-to-damnation ratio applies: There’s too much good here not to forgive the bad.