Ricky Gervais is a very funny guy.
In "The Office," the brilliant British sitcom he created and wrote with Stephen Merchant, Gervais played a cringingly hilarious office manager who was a lot less intelligent or talented than he believed.
In "Extras," also made with Merchant, he was just as good as a struggling actor who discovers the truth in the old adage of being careful about what you wish for.
Gervais has carried aspects of these personae onto the movie screen as well, in small roles ("For Your Consideration," the two "Night at the Museum" movies) and leading ones (as a miserable, mean-spirited dentist in "Ghost Town").
With " The Invention of Lying," out this week on DVD (Warner Home Video, $28.98/$35.99 Blu-ray, rated PG-13), Gervais takes his shtick into another inventive area. Co-written and co-directed by Gervais (with Matthew Robinson), "Lying" sets up an alternative universe in which all people tell the truth at all times. It's a world in which humans do not possess a "lying gene," which eliminates such stuff as storytelling. In this world, Pepsi signs read, "For when they don't have Coke" and a nursing home is a "sad place where homeless old people come to die."
Gervais plays a not-particularly-successful screenwriter named Mark Bellison — only in this world, the movies he writes are turgid historical documentaries that are merely read to the viewing audience by a snooty narrator named Nathan Goldfrappe (Christopher Guest in a smoking jacket).
When he's fired from his job, Mark's secretary (Tina Fey) tells him she's always "loathed" him, and when he goes out on a date with a hot neighbor (Jennifer Garner) he's long had a crush on, she smilingly and pleasantly tells him she wouldn't think of sleeping with a pudgy guy like him. At dinner, their waiter admits he took a sip from one of their drinks.
Unloved and out of work, Mark is about to be evicted from his drab apartment when a new idea flows through his brain — we actually see the brain synapses at work — and thus lying is invented.
What has already been a clever and funny movie then takes a clever, funny and philosophical turn. In addition to using lying to obtain money from banks and get rehired at his job, Mark tries to comfort his dying mother (Fionulla Flanagan) by telling her that a wonderful afterlife awaits her. Mark is overheard by hospital staffers and soon his story about what happens after we die makes him famous.
This all leads to a remarkable scene in which Mark, now beleaguered by thousands of people who want to know more, tells those assembled that there is a "Man in the Sky" who determines all that happens on Earth. People greet this amazing news with excitement, confusion and lots of questions.
Although Gervais is clearly having some gentle, good-natured fun at the expense of religious belief based on faith, "The Invention of Lying" (originally titled "This Side of the Truth") wears its atheism lightly. Gervais' humor raises questions but doesn't preach. The story runs out of gas toward the end and succumbs to some predictable conventions of romantic comedy. But it never loses its intelligence, humor or heart.