The Crop: This Side of the Truth
The Studio: Warner Brothers
The Directors: Ricky Gervais and Matt Robinson
The Writers: Gervais and Robinson
The Actors: Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill
The Premise: On an alternate Earth where lying was never invented, an average guy discovers the transformative power of saying things… that aren’t.
The Context: Few artists have chronicled the plight of the mediocre more piercingly than Ricky Gervais. Though far from average himself (at least, intellectually speaking), Gervais has an empathy for failure; he understands the heartbreak of forever finishing fourth, and heightens it via characters who are generally too deluded to outwardly acknowledge their averageness. Given their impossible aspirations, David Brent (of The Office) and Andy Millman (Extras) would likely end it all if they ever owned up to their myriad shortcomings. For them, defeat is the persistent prelude to winning; and while they’re waiting on unattainable triumph, they content themselves with the most trivial victories imaginable (e.g. Finchy compensating for the quiz team’s loss by hurling Tim’s shoe over the roof of the pub – and that’s a vicarious trivial victory!). Their lack of shame is commensurate with their absence of talent.
Brent and Millman are buffoons, but they rarely descend into broad, gesticulating caricature like most American sitcom leads – and even when they do, there’s something recognizably human in their histrionics. This is why both The Office and Extras have been so widely embraced by U.S. audiences (the former was selling briskly on DVD in this country way before NBC picked up the intermittently wonderful Steve Carrell iteration): there’s something terribly American about failing loudly and not giving a shit who knows.
But the most endearing quality to Gervais’s characters (including the ones he doesn’t play) is their unspoken desperation. This is especially true of The Office, in which even the unhinged Gareth seems touched by a measure of sadness (he’s got “Do Not Date” etched all over his twitchy face). And this is an product of Gervais’s barely contained sentimentality; when you carve away the cruel exterior, there’s a romantic streak that’d reduce Frank Capra to dry heaves. Only a complete sap could conceive of Tim’s un-miked confrontation with Dawn in The Office‘s second season finale.
And yet Gervais has long been content to play the crying-on-the-inside clown. He’s never really thrown himself out there as a wounded romantic. To my mind, this is what’s held him back from approaching the introspective brilliance of his true comedic forebear: Albert Brooks.
The Script: Twenty pages into This Side of the Truth, I was convinced that I was reading the best relationship comedy since Modern Romance. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, blind buy the DVD. Stanley Kubrick thought it was perfect. You’re going to argue?
If I didn’t fall immediately in love with Gervais’s collaboration with Matt Robinson (an unknown quantity until this script earns him an Oscar nomination), it’s because its caveman prologue reminded me of Harold Ramis’s Year One. And all bits of comedic caveman business invariably call to mind Carl Gottlieb’s Caveman (at which point I get Lalo Schifrin’s main theme stuck in my head and weep incessantly). I imagine that Gervais will play the “loser” caveman, who is ridiculed by his fellow cro-mags until he accidentally leads a tusked boar to its death. When the other men in the tribe find the panicked “loser” with the slain beast, they immediately lambaste him for being scared. But the “loser” holds the advantage: no one was around when he ran for shelter in his cave, thereby causing the beast to ram into the small opening and dislodge a boulder which caused its death. Realizing this, the “loser” quickly concocts a story wherein he clobbers the boar with a rock. The other cavemen, having no understanding of guile, buy this story without question, and suddenly the “loser” is a conquering hero.
But what if the “loser” had honorably owned up to his cowardice? What if personal pride couldn’t rouse him to tell a lie? And what if everyone over the succeeding course of history only said what was exactly on their mind. We’d all be better off right?
Maybe not. As the script segues from the prologue into the modern day, the narrator posits, “A world without lying would be a world without dreams. A world without pretense. A world without fiction. A world without flattery. A world very unlike our own.”
And we discover just how unlike our own in the very next scene, where our protagonist, Mark (Gervais) arrives at the apartment of Jennifer (Jennifer Garner) to take her out on a blind date. Jennifer’s the cousin of Mark’s best friend, Greg (Louis C.K.), while Mark is… “average to semi-handsome”. Here’s their meet-blunt exchange:
That’s how you establish tone, kids. This unrelenting honesty continues as Mark bellows to a showering Jennifer that a) he’s made reservations at a moderately hip restaurant that might not impress her, b) he’s forty and bereft of potential or financial assets (and about to be fired), and c) he’s horny because he assumes she’s masturbating in the shower. And he’s right. Unfortunately, Jennifer still doesn’t find him attractive. She’s also not much of a prize outside of her looks: on the drive to the restaurant, she prattles on and on about her “affected sense of quirkiness” and “hyper self-reflexifity”, which prompts Mark to confide that he’s grown bored and begun thinking about the restaurant’s fish tacos.
The vulgar amongst you are asking, “How is this different from Liar, Liar?” For starters, Gervais and Robinson have created a whole society predicated on the absence of lies; furthermore, it’s not a one-man show. And it’s smart, too! After the date, which goes well enough despite the lack of sexual attraction on Jennifer’s part, we’re thrust into Mark’s drab existence. Mark works at Lecture Films, a studio which produces the non-lying equivalent of entertainment: men in smoking jackets sitting in front of a fire reciting accounts of historical events. Mark’s on the chopping block because he’s been assigned the 14th century, which leaves him little to write about aside from the Black Plague. Even in a world where the unvarnished truth is king, people still don’t want to hear about the most depressing period in human history. Before Mark is sent packing, we meet his smug rival, Rob Marlowe (Rob Lowe*), Lecture Films’ most successful writer (who confesses to being threatened by Mark because there’s something about him he doesn’t understand; “And I fucking hate things I don’t understand”). On his way out, Rob informs Mark that the secretary he fancies, Shelly, calls him an “ass fag” behind his back. This does not improve Rob’s mood.
Compounding Mark’s misery is his grandmother, Martha, whom he’s socked away in a nursing home. Though they never mention it by name, she’s clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the frank manner in which she describes her condition is heartbreaking: “I don’t understand anything you just said, and that makes me scared and angry.” Mark obviously loves his grandmother (who essentially raised him), but he lacks the imagination to empathize with her condition.
As if he’s not morose enough, Mark next heads out to get hammered with his best friend Greg (Louis C.K.), a dim-witted racist who’s so depressed he frequently wets the bed. After a far from comforting drunken conversation, Mark returns home to pass out, only to be awakened in the morning by his rent-demanding landlord. Short on cash, the landlord has no choice but to evict him. Mark then heads to the bank to withdraw his remaining $300, which is impossible because the computers are temporarily down. But this is a world where no one lies. All Mark has to do is inform the teller how much money is left in his account, and they’ll hand it over. This is where Mark inexplicably snaps, blurting out $800 instead of $300. When the system suddenly pops back on, revealing that he only has $300, the teller instinctively blames the computer and gives Mark $800.
And now Mark is a god because he simply “said something… that wasn’t“.
I would love to spoil Mark’s many abuses of his newfound power, but this is all you’re going to get. Obviously, he uses his yarn-spinning gifts to get his job back (he invents a whole alternative history of the 1300s that’s straight out of a really bad Michael Crichton novel), which results in a financial windfall. But it’s not enough to impress Jennifer (with whom he’s still obsessed even though she’s still not attracted to him), and it doesn’t diminish the pain of watching his grandmother waste away in a nursing home. So Mark keeps lying and lying, futilely hoping that each new whopper might change his life (and the lives of his loved ones) for the better. For the sake of that helpful dramatic device called “conflict”, the results aren’t always ideal; in fact, they’re often downright disastrous.
Why It Should Be Great: Until the final act, Gervais and Robinson adroitly ponder the meaning of the truth and the inspirational value of a lie. The wrap-up is a bit pat (could we please get a moratorium on wedding finales?), but the notion that existence is joyless without fabrication is brilliantly exploited. To put it in Brooks-ian terms, it starts out as Modern Romance, but gradually takes on the wistful tone of Defending Your Life. If they fix the ending (and they’re too smart not to), we’ll be talking about an instant classic next year.
What It Might Not Be Great: They shoot the script as is. And then it’ll only be really, really, really good.
Why I’ve Been Laughing to Myself All Weekend: “A Cheap Hotel for Intercourse with a Near Stranger”.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Public Enemies.
*I guess Gervais landed first choices across the board.