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What if I told you about a major motion picture that said God is a myth? That its main character, living in a world in which people are incapable of lying, soothes his dying mother by saying she’s about to leave this life for a better place, where she’ll have a mansion and see all of her friends and be happier than she’s ever been?
Mum isn’t the only comforted dupe of the falsehood in the story: When her caretakers hear of this wonderful afterlife, word spreads fast, and soon the accidental prophet is telling the masses about heaven and hell—though there are no such terms for them yet—and exactly how you need to behave to avoid eternal damnation. To complete the fib, he preaches about “the man in the sky,” who he says is responsible for good things! Such as saving someone from drowning. But he’s also to blame for bad things, such as cancer.
And the even more subversive cherry? The people who believe him are largely portrayed as idiots. One would imagine that such a film would generate howls of blasphemy from conservatives and Christians, à la The Golden Compass and The Da Vinci Code before their openings. But the movie described above is The Invention of Lying, released wide on Oct. 2 and seemingly on no one’s radar except fans of the British version of The Office.
Granted, actor, co-writer, and director Ricky Gervais’ film is fundamentally a big-studio romantic comedy—but Golden Compass was merely a big-studio kids’ flick, and it had groups from the Catholic League to the American Family Association drumming up a boycott (author Philip Pullman’s “real goal is to put a positive face on atheism,” the Catholic League said). On his blog, Gervais acknowledges that Lying has a bit of an edge: He calls it a “sweet Hollywood family rom-com; it just happens to be the first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.”
So why no protest? Critic James Berardinelli, who runs the Web site Reelviews.net, accuses the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., of intentionally hiding the religion subplot, writing in his review: “In an effort to limit controversy, the distributor, Warner Brothers, has decided to obscure the film’s unsubtle commentary about religious matters. You won’t find anything about it in the trailers; you have to see the movie to be exposed to it.” (Warner Bros. refused to comment.)
Beliefnet blogger Michele McGinty agrees, accusing the studio of “smug condescension” and trying to trick her into “paying to see a movie that insults me as a gullible sap.” (Unlike Berardinelli, McGinty has not seen the film, instead reacting to a review in the New York Post.)
Former church-group leader Phil Petree of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., said in an e-mail interview that Christians likely took a “Don’t feed the monkey!” approach. “The more we respond,” he mused, “the more publicity [the film] will get, and the more people will see that message.…In the end, by ignoring them, movies like The God Who Wasn’t There go largely [unnoticed] by the media and audiences in general and become dismal failures.”
“Dismal” may be a tad strong to describe The Invention of Lying’s initial two-week box office, but it’s not too far off the mark. Even with Hollywood A-listers such as Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, and Jonah Hill, the film ranked fifth in its opening weekend, bringing in a paltry $7.4 million and dropping approximately 53 percent in its second week. (Its budget was $18.5 million.) Though that’s a slight improvement over Gervais’ first leading-man comedy, last year’s Ghost Town, you still gotta wonder if some pre-release Internet fisticuffs would have given it a Passion of the Christ-–like boost.
Another Beliefnet contributor, Nell Minow (the “Movie Mom”), believes that the film didn’t raise a ruckus because there’s not much for Christians to be upset about. “I don’t think the movie is anti-religion, even though Gervais is an atheist,” Minow says. “It’s not like Dogma or The Last Temptation of Christ, which attack the church head-on. Gervais’ character sort of makes up the idea of religion, and it is his fake religion that is the subject of the film, not an actual denomination. It’s more like Life of Brian.”
Plus, Minow adds, “I have not seen any bloggers objecting to the portrayal of Judaism in A Serious Man, though it is arguably as offensive as The Invention of Lying is to Christians. The Jewish characters are all grotesque—glib, fatuous, irreverent, remote. Is it because [writers-directors Ethan and Joel Coen] are Jewish that this is permissible?”
It’s likely as well that The Invention of Lying’s skewering of religion is permissible because Gervais is not exactly a household name this side of the pond yet. Or could it be we’re just gaining a sense of humor about spiritual questioning? Doubtful. On his blog, Gervais encourages those who do find the film funny to “enjoy it while you can. They won’t show it in Heaven.”
Watch the film’s trailer: