In The Republic, Plato condemned all poets as liars and banished them from his ideal society. Even Plato, however, would have had trouble establishing any sort of connection between John Keats, whose love affair with Fanny Brawne is the subject of Jane Campion's Bright Star, and Mark Whitacre, the self-aggrandizing nutcase of Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! Ricky Gervais, in The Invention of Lying, attempts to show how the human imagination can be used for good, as in Keats' case, or for ill, as in Whitacre's. Plato, however, probably wouldn't even notice Gervais, let alone bother to banish him.
Let us start with the poet. Campion—who based her screenplay on Andrew Motion's acclaimed biography of Keats--begins Bright Star in medias res, with Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his friend and mentor Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) already the tenants of the Brawne family. Fanny (Abbie Cornish) and Brown are natural enemies, as Campion makes plain from the beginning: the opening scene is essentially the two exchanging insults. Fanny, a seamstress and dressmaker, is intelligent and independent, two traits the ursine Brown cannot accept from a woman. Fanny is interested in Keats, but at this point just wants to be neighborly to him. Brown, zealous to develop his brilliant friend's talent, wants to guard him against all distractions—of which women, to his mind, are the worst.
As Campion also makes plain, Brown didn't need to be so belligerent. In the English society of 1818, it was inconceivable that Keats, a man with no money or prospects, could marry. Then, of course, came the tuberculosis Keats contracted from his dying brother Tom, which would kill the poet, in Rome in vain search of a healthier climate, early in 1821.
Bright Star, then, is the story of a romance doomed from the beginning. There is nothing torrid about it: even if the mores of the time had allowed it, Keats' physical condition did not. A kiss by the fire, Keats' head hugged against Fanny's fully clothed breast, is as erotic as it gets.
Campion includes enough hard-headed wit to keep the film from going gooey on us. At one point, Fanny's little sister Toots (the adorable Edie Martin) goes to the local bookstore to buy Keats' Endymion for Fanny. Toots tells the bookseller, "She wants to see whether or not he's an idiot." Ben Whishaw prevents Keats from seeming totally passive, a fate easy to befall writers portrayed on screen. While one can debate whether Whishaw's Keats seems capable of writing "Ode to a Nightingale," he definitely is capable of defending himself and Fanny against Brown, and also appropriately intense in his emotional and esthetic responses.
In the end, however, Bright Star is mostly Fanny's story. She is the one who most closely observes Keats, and the one who most deeply mourns him after his death. Campion was wise to cast Abbie Cornish, an actress of winsome presence and impressive emotional range, as Fanny. Cornish involves us totally as Fanny discovers, little by little, the genius of the man who lives under her roof, and at Keats' death we feel the full force of her grief as she wanders the leafless woods of Hampstead Heath.
There are a few awkward moments in Bright Star. Although it's nearly impossible, in film biographies of famous writers, to avoid them quoting their own work to other characters, it's difficult to avoid bathos when they do. (Steve Allen's PBS series, Meeting of Minds, was the worst all-time offender in that regard.) Overall, however, the film is touching and persuasive, especially in Campion's evocation of Keats' social and sensory world. Keats may have been poor, but the milieu he inhabited—at least when he stayed with the Brawnes—was middle-class, a world of dancing lessons, cozy teas and picnics in nearby meadows. With the brilliant contributions of photographer Greig Fraser, art directors David Hindle and Christian Huband, and costumer Janet Patterson, Campion presents these scenes with thrilling displays of color and light. There are individual scenes that Campion renders unforgettable in their rich simplicity. In several scenes, the camera pans over the characters lounging or running in fields of daffodils or azure wildflowers; one of the loveliest, however, simply shows Fanny sewing in her bedroom as pure gold sunlight, breathtaking as anything in Vermeer, pours in from the window.
In contrast, everything is ugly in The Informant!—rightly so. The film portrays a world that would have made Keats retch—the world of mass-produced food and corporate financial crime—and a man, Mark Whitacre, whom if he didn't exist would need a Swift or Twain to create him.
The screenplay of The Informant!—written by Scott Z. Burns from Kurt Eichenwald's non-fiction book—begins with Whitacre (Matt Damon), a biochemist and senior executive at the giant food additive corporation ADM. Living in a handsome house in rural Illinois, Whitacre drives to work every day past waving fields of corn—the corn he helps to turn into lysine and high-fructose corn syrup.
When a competitor tries to blackmail Whitacre and ADM, Whitacre's bosses contact the FBI. Almost immediately, Whitacre drops a bombshell: he tells agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) of participating in top-secret meetings to fix worldwide prices for lysine, a corn-based enzyme ubiquitous in processed food. Shepard and his partner (Joel McHale) inform their superiors, and soon they're wiring Whitacre to record price-fixing meetings between ADM and its competitors.
From the beginning, however, Soderbergh and Burns clue us in that nothing with Whitacre is as it seems. Whitacre's constant voiceover narration never truly reflects the action on screen. By the time he's telling Shepard via cell phone that he's working late at night in his office, when in fact he's sitting in his car in a motel parking lot, the audience has a strong suspicion that Whitacre, to put it mildly, has issues. Shepard discovers this when Whitacre starts giving himself the airs of an international spymaster. He tells people he's Agent 0014—"because I'm twice as smart as 007"—and stares and talks directly into the FBI's hidden cameras.
Then there's the stuff Whitacre isn't telling. Some reviewers have actually revealed it, but it's vastly better not to know it beforehand, so you can have the same surprise Shepard had.
Damon's performance is one of the best of his career so far. Thirty pounds heavier than usual, wearing a bouffant toupee and beaver-pelt mustache, Damon's clueless, self-congratulatory Whitacre is a giddy black-comic creation. (Among other things, the mustache suggests that if Hollywood ever films a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Damon is a prime candidate for the role.) Damon is matched by Bakula, who looks more and more like a whipped bloodhound as the film progresses, and by Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's wife Ginger, whose hard-lipped expression tells us how much it has cost her to remain loyal to her husband. There also are cameos by Patton Oswalt as a shyster and Dick Smothers as a judge.
Soderbergh keeps us off guard by making sure the film's elements do not match, just as Whitacre's stories don't. Whitacre may pretend he's James Bond, and Marvin Hamlisch's chirpy music may be straight out of Austin Powers, but the cold, flat photography (by Soderbergh himself, under his nom de camera of Peter Andrews) and the impersonal production design of Doug J. Meerdink are pure John Le Carre. The Informant! may be a comedy, for want of a better word, but it left me with a feeling of overwhelming sadness for a wasted, deluded life.
Speaking of delusions—probably my own—am I the only person in the world who doesn't think Ricky Gervais is the combined reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers? I admit I haven't seen that much of him: four or five episodes of his star-making sitcom, The Office, which didn't do much for me; a few appearances on The Daily Show and other talk shows, in which he was very funny; and his current film, The Invention of Lying, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson. The man has talent, but genius? I have yet to see it, and The Invention of Lying suggests Gervais is reaching the limits of his competence. (A few weeks ago I saw a newspaper article headlined, "Who's the Funniest Brit Comedian—Ricky Gervais or Russell Brand?" My answer was immediate: "Eddie Izzard.")
The Invention of Lying has a clever premise. As Gervais explains in an opening voiceover, the film portrays a world in which people have never developed the capacity to lie. The story that follows shows that Gervais includes tact as a subset within lying. In the first scene, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) tells her newly arrived blind date Mark Bellison (Gervais) that she was just upstairs masturbating to relieve her depression at the prospect of a date with a pudgy, snub-nosed loser. Bellison agrees he's a loser, admits he's about to lose his job, and says the restaurant he chose isn't expensive enough for Anna. Anna excuses herself to finish masturbating before they go out, leaving Bellison slumping glumly on the sofa.
The Invention of Lying progresses from that point, in a world where everyone blurts out exactly what he or she is thinking, and where people tell you outright that they hate you or feel threatened by you. Persuasion doesn't exist. TV ads tell you that Coke is only colored sugar water, but you should buy it because it's very famous. Then a bus ad states, "Pepsi—When They Don't Have Coke." Fiction doesn't exist. Movies consist of historical armchair lectures, period. Bellison is about to lose his screenwriting job because—assigned to write about the 14th century—he just can't get anyone interested in the Black Plague. Comforting platitudes don't exist. The nursing home in which Bellison's mother (Fionnula Flanagan) lives is called, "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People."
When everything is at face value, the world belongs to outwardly beautiful people such as Anna McDoogles and Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), a star screenwriter (17th, 18th and 20th centuries) and Bellison's smug, supercilious enemy. Brad orders the filet mignon in restaurants, as he explains, "because it's expensive, it tastes good, and it shows how important I am." Guys like Brad have it all; guys like Bellison are doomed to lifelong loserdom.
However—for no apparent reason except the growing pressure of his daily life—Bellison suddenly has the inspiration that he can lie to make his life better. This is so unprecedented that there are no words to describe it. "I said something—that wasn't!" he tells his bemused friends at the local bar. He can't make them understand it, but he himself understands the utility of saying things that aren't. He tells a bank teller he has more money in his account than he actually does, and he can pay his rent. He tells a beautiful blonde the world will end unless they have sex immediately, and her only question is the location of the nearest motel. He fills his Black Plague narratives with ninjas and spaceships, and suddenly he rivals the loathsome Brad in wealth and popularity. Not all his lies, however, are self-serving; he also gives a not-quite-sincere pep talk to cheer up a suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill).
All this goes along smoothly, providing frequent chuckles and an occasional belly laugh. Garner, Lowe and the other supporting actors maintain an admirable deadpan as people living totally on the surface. As for Gervais, his saber-toothed pudding face is a mobile comic instrument, and he's one of those comedians who can cry as effectively as he laughs. One of the film's most memorable moments comes toward the end, when Bellison weeps quietly at his mother's grave.
But then comes the film's decisive moment: Bellison, at the deathbed of his terrified mother, invents on the spur of the moment a beautiful place where dead souls go, where everyone has a mansion and is surrounded by everyone they loved in life. The old woman dies comforted, and the hospital staff, overhearing, demands to hear more.
This leads to the film's funniest scene—one worthy of Monty Python--in which Bellison, besieged by curious crowds, is forced to devise an all-encompassing cosmology on the spot, complete with commandments written on the insides of pizza boxes. ("No, there is no hairstyle that will make you go to the bad place!" he tells the crowd at one point.)
Nevertheless, I had two problems with this plot development—one personal, one esthetic. Gervais, an outspoken atheist, does more here than assert that all religion is The Man in the Sky, a web of lies told by scoundrels and believed by fools. He presents a scenario in which bald truth equals a godless universe, with no debate possible or even conceivable. For those of us who don't keep copies of The God Delusion on our coffee tables, Gervais' thesis is grotesquely simplistic, not to mention insulting.
Yet Gervais is entitled to his beliefs, and he has as much right to be dogmatic in expressing his beliefs as, say, Pat Robertson does. My second problem with his "Man in the Sky" plot twist is more basic to the film: that he simply doesn't do enough with the idea. After the big laughs he gets from creating religion, Gervais retreats to the romance, in which Bellison tries to persuade Anna to ditch Brad and pollute her gene pool with pudgy, snub-nosed children. There are some touching moments (such as the aforementioned graveside scene), but for the most part Gervais succeeds only in creating a concept that, to my knowledge, is new to the movies: Mushy Atheism. Like mushy peas, it's not an innovation the world particularly needs.
The Invention of Lying is a yawning gulf of missed opportunities. Why doesn't Gervais, having introduced a radical blasphemy, play it for all it's worth? The prime example is politics. In a society where lying is unknown, how would politics function? (If advertising exists, politics must.) And couldn't Bellison have a meteoric career in politics, confounding his opponents by repeated pronouncements from The Man in the Sky? The opportunity to skewer the current political scene, with its plethora of fanatics and hypocrites citing Biblical authority, was so juicy that it left me dumbfounded Gervais avoided it. You can bet George Carlin wouldn't have, or Stanley Kubrick. (Given the undistinguished directorial style of The Invention of Lying, however, bringing up Kubrick's name is almost a cruelty.)
Gervais has almost unlimited cachet in today's show business scene, as the list of cameos in The Invention of Lying demonstrates: Tina Fey as Bellison's snotty secretary ("I've loathed almost every minute I've worked for you," she tells him), Edward Norton as a motorcycle cop, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender, Christopher Guest as a lecturer, Jason Bateman as a doctor, and so on. Like the corporations that barrage us with product placements throughout The Invention of Lying (Budweiser and Pizza Hut as well as Coke and Pepsi), these stars have staked their brand names on their rock-solid belief in the genius of Ricky Gervais. I, however, remain an agnostic.