Is there a place for Monty Python in today’s comedy world? While Anchorman and other similar movies from recent years are certainly classics it seems like 98 percent of what’s released under the “Comedy” heading in the last 10 years or so has either been one of the incredibly lame “parody” movies like Scare Movie that aren’t movies as much as they are a dozen “SNL” skit ideas that are loosely strung together or they’re simply romantic comedies that are all pretty much the same. There are occasional exceptions, but there’s not much place it seems in today’s media market for comedy that challenges the viewer at the same time you’re laughing uproariously at it.
There is, to put it simply, a lack of intelligence in most of today’s comedies.
One bright spot in this is Ricky Gervais. While I haven’t yet caught “Extras” I am a huge fan of “The Office,” the series he created and starred in on the BBC. I absolutely prefer it to the later, very popular American version simply because the U.S. one did not have nearly the number of moments that were incredibly funny but which I watched with my hands over my eyes but fingers open because it was so painful. Gervais seems to be one of the true comedic heirs of the Python troupe, if only because his goals seem to be the same: Make himself and about three of his friends laugh and if anyone else enjoys it then, hey, bonus.
Gervais has had a couple of early film introductions to the American public, most recently in Ghost Town. But those have been other people’s projects. His new movie, The Invention of Lying, is, like “The Office” and some other of his projects, a creation of his own and so is going to be more representative of his own style. The movie takes place in an alternate universe where no one lies or is even aware of the idea of not telling the truth. But one day Gervais’ character stumbles on the notion that if he says something – even if it’s not actually true – people will believe it because the notion of something not being so is completely foreign to them.
The movie’s poster is a mix of heads and text (which would be a great name for a band made up of graphic designers). It shows some of the supporting characters along with the truths that they tell in this world without lying that we, in our civilized society, would never dream of saying out loud. At the bottom stands Gervais, labeled as the only guy in this world who can actually tell a lie.
It’s really not all that funny, at least not at first. It’s selling the premise of the movie – that Gervais’ character is the sole person who thinks of not telling the truth – without selling much of the funny. Instead it looks like a mildly pleasant movie with some calm, serene background.
At the bottom of the one-sheet is copy that tells us this comes from the co-creator of “The Office” and “Extras,” which will probably have many in the American audience thinking “That’s not Steve Carell” and “He’s not on ‘Extra’” respectively. Only a select percentage of the audience is going to see those as being points to emphasize.
The trailer presents a light, breezy comedy that relies heavily on Gervais’ considerable charm and talents. It lays out who his character is, a slightly chubby middle-management type who is a hit neither with the ladies or with his co-workers, all of whom have no problem telling him exactly what they think of him in very clear terms. Then when day he discovers he can lie to people and they’ll believe him because they have no reason not to – everyone always tells the truth. So he uses this new found power for his own personal gain, including convincing Garner to go out with him again.
It’s pretty funny but way – I mean severely – too dry for most comedy audiences, even with the inclusion of Tina Fey in the supporting cast. There are some funny moments, but Gervais’ deadpan never oversells a joke and that’s going to hurt him in appealing to people who like to be told when it’s alright to laugh. Still, it might reach a decent enough sized audience that’s going to be drawn to both the material and the delivery. At least we can hope so.
The movie’s official website leads, as many do, with the trailer, which plays after a brief loading sequence.
After that the main content menu loads in a style and format that mimics the film’s key art, giving it a nice sense of consistency. If you mouse over those content areas you will get more honest descriptions of what they contain, which is pretty funny.
“About the Film” contains a Synopsis that opens by making it clear Gervais is the creator of the “The Office” and then gets into the film’s plot and eventually the cast list. That gets expanded on in the Cast & Crew section, where you’ll find the credits of the major players on the movie. Finally there are Production Notes that come in (unlabeled) PDF form.
There are 24 stills, including a handful of behind-the-scenes shots, in the “Gallery.” One of those shows a cast chair Gervais is sitting in that has what I would presume to be the film’s original working title on it. “Videos” has the trailer and three TV spots. The usual collection of Wallpapers, Icons and a Screensaver can be found in “Downloads.”
“Features” has The Web of No Lies, which shows what the Internet would look like if people weren’t capable of fluffing their resume or actually said what they really think to people online (can’t imagine that some people are holding back in real life) and The Truth Translator, which is still labeled as “Coming Soon” just a couple days before the movie opens.
The next section is a partnership with Someecards.com, a site that has some funny e-cards that extend the idea of telling the truth to those you’re talking to and dealing with the consequences.
The last section, “Promotions,” is just a list with links to sites that were running contests in conjunction with the movie.
There’s also the requisite Facebook page, which contains the trailer, poster, some stills and updates about some of the cast’s appearances on TV and elsewhere. Many of the updates seem cross-posted from the WBPictures Twitter profile, which isn’t a bad thing.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I think there was a bit of online advertising done around and about but I didn’t encounter much along those lines. And there weren’t, aside from the sites that ran contests, any corporations signing up to help cross-promote the movie to their buyers.
That left TV advertising and the handful of commercials that all acted as condensed versions of the trailer. They’re pretty funny and sell the movie as a general comedy whose premise is laid out via voice-over instead of being made clear through scenes from the film as the trailer does. A disturbing amount of the running time of these spots is devoted to the same couple of sex jokes that are included in the trailer. All three also include the same scene of Tina Fey’s cameo appearance, meaning the marketers are hoping her position as one of the biggest stars on television has a halo effect on the movie.
Media and Publicity
A series of clips was released that, for the most part, expanded on some of the scenes we’d seen originally in the trailer.
In terms of media appearances and such, Gervais was certainly at the center of all that and the primary face of the movie in the press. Garner also did some lifting to this end and the two provide the great majority of the coverage that’s resulted from the entertainment and other press. The two were interviewed by this, that and the other person, sometimes without pants (sadly not Garner there) but most of the time, thankfully, with.
All that included taking the movie to the Toronto Film Festival for one of its first and most important debuts, a debut that garnered mostly positive but sometimes mixed reviews but, regardless, got people talking about the movie. The movie’s showing at TIFF included a panel with Gervais, Garner and Lowe
There’s a lot to like about this campaign, including how it shows Gervais is willing – even eager – to present himself as the butt of the jokes and not as something he’s not, a dashing leading man. Since that’s kind of the point of the movie’s premise it makes sense for that to come through in the marketing.
It seems at times like the campaign is playing a little broadly, or more accurately that it doesn’t trust the movie to stand on its own. That’s the sense I get when, for instance, Tina Fey’s cameo scenes become the focus of the TV spots or when the same two sex jokes get repeated throughout the campaign.
I honestly can’t decide if I think the campaign as a whole seems kind of light or just about right. I guess the confusion comes from wanting to see a stronger push made, with a solid call to action for people to see the movie. Instead it’s presented in a “Hey, this is kind of funny so check it out” manner. Which isn’t exactly bad, just that that’s not how smash hits are made.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 10/12/09: Could a profound anti-religious bent that the movie takes but which was completely missing from the marketing campaign be partly responsible for its fall-off at the box-office? Eric Zorn asks exactly that question.