They ought to have dubbed it “The Invention of God.”
This surprisingly subversive romantic comedy starts out amusingly enough. The Lowell, Mass., setting suggests small-town Americana, but in this parallel universe, the concepts of lying and subterfuge have not yet been invented, and everyone speaks the bluntly honest truth. Even the signage tells it strictly like it is: A bar is a “Cheap Place to Drink.” Roadside lodging is labeled “Cheap Motel for Intercourse with the Nearest Stranger.” Casinos are frank about the low odds of winning. And so on.
Ricky Gervais  plays Mark Bellison, a schlumpy, unsuccessful writer of screenplays. He works for Lecture Films, purveyors of on-camera recitations of facts and figures (all there is, since there’s no such thing as fiction), which is run by the perpetually exasperated Anthony (Jeffrey Tambor). Tina Fey appears briefly as a caustic receptionist, and stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton make cameo appearances as well.
Mark is hopelessly smitten with the upper-crust Anna McDoogles (played with fable-like innocence by Jennifer Garner ), the cousin of his best friend. Though after their first date she admits she enjoys his company, she feels their relationship can never lead to marriage as they would have fat kids with little snub noses. Mark’s handsome-but-dim office rival Brad (Rob Lowe) would, she believes, provide a more suitable genetic match, even as her friendship with Mark deepens. She is, in short, “out of his league,” as we are reminded repeatedly.
When Mark loses his job, he inadvertently secures his desperately needed rent money when a bank teller misinterprets an innocent remark about the size of his account. She assumes a bank error, and blithely hands over the desired amount. Having thus uttered the world’s very first lie, he soon puts his discovery to further use, and not just for monetary gain. Mark, it turns out, has a good heart, and so he offers compassionate (if untruthful) words to lift the spirits of all he encounters, including his suicidal neighbor.
When a doctor bluntly informs his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan) she’s about to die, she cries piteously about the nothingness to come. As the “lie” of religion has not yet been invented, a tearful Mark improvises a version of heaven and an all-knowing “Man in the Sky,” while the doctor and his staff listen in hushed wonderment. Before long, word spreads of Mark’s wisdom on spiritual matters, and he’s compelled to hold a press conference on his front porch—delivering a sort of Ten Commandments on Pizza Hut boxes—and describing concepts we would call God, heaven, hell and sin. But it’s merely a salve to a gullible populace. Later, disconsolate after Anna’s rejection, he becomes a recluse with a Jesus beard and robe, the nadir of the film’s sight gags.
Those of a non-believing mindset, of course, may find the atheistic message of the film just their cup of tea. Believers of any faith will be deeply disturbed by that underlying theme. And from a strictly commercial point of view, does a largely sentimental movie-going public—one that makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” a perennial holiday favorite—want to hear Mark tearful musings over his mother’s grave that, despite all he has said publicly about that “Man in the Sky,” he knows she’s really just moldering in the ground?
One keeps hoping the film will turn into a contemporary take on Moses, in the same way that the Steve Carell  film, “Evan Almighty,” recycled the Noah story to good and, on the whole, reverential effect. Or that perhaps Mark, despite thinking he’s made everything up, will be given some miraculous sign demonstrating the existence of God or proof of an afterlife. Alas, such a turnabout never comes. We are left instead on what is meant to be a hopeful note, with the main characters forging onward, finding solace and strength in each other, if not in a higher power.
Ironically, Gervais—who also produced, and co-wrote and directed the film with Matthew Robinson—shows more range here than in his previous films, evincing a genuine tenderness and poignancy. But he has written himself a tonally misguided script, and his direction is flatly uninspired. The gags involving truth and fabrication may bring a smile, but unfortunately they are not the thrust of the film. Too many of the jokes fall flat, and a few are simply crude. Anna’s growing realization that inner beauty is more important than surface perfection is an admirable if commonplace sentiment, but we have seen this theme dramatized more satisfyingly before. When it comes to moral uplift, Ricky Gervais simply can’t compete with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.