What do you make of a romantic comedy ballsy enough to challenge belief in God? We're not in Matthew McConaughey territory anymore. Last year's "The Invention of Lying" is a romcom with a subversive streak, but writer/director/star Ricky Gervais ("Ghost Town") prefers his rebellion with a smile. It's a curious, if uneven, sensibility, but at its best, the movie is hilarious.

The premise is certainly ingenious. Gervais and his writing-director partner, Matthew Robinson, conjure up an alternate universe that looks a lot like ours with one notable exception: People speak the truth, and nothing but the truth. In a world with no deceit, flattery or fiction, there isn't even a word for lying.

Subsequently, it isn't much of a shock when pudgy, sad-sack Mark Bellison (Gervais) knocks on the door of his date, gorgeous Anna (Jennifer Garner, "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"), and is greeted with her saying, "You're early "? I was just masturbating." To which Mark answers, "That makes me think of your vagina."

The date doesn't go well, but it's in keeping with a string of bad luck for Mark, who loses his job and faces eviction. But then a miracle happens. Mark suddenly learns how to lie, a discovery that allows him to get rich and get his job back. It also allows him to soothe his dying mother with a whopper about "the man in the sky" and an afterlife where everyone gets a mansion and ice cream.

"The Invention of Lying" is often inspired, but falls short of greatness. As it progresses, you realize that Gervais and Robinson are mistaking truthfulness for superficiality, insensitivity and loquaciousness. It's not a fatal flaw, but you do wish the filmmakers had followed their own ground rules. And that's the honest-to-God truth. "?Phil Bacharach

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