|Monty Python's the Meaning of Life|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 23 August 2005|
For dedicated Pythonites, the meaning of life is 'Monty Python's Flying Circus.' That's fair enough, especially for fans of absurdist comedy that attacks everything in sight. The troupe of six writer/actors--five Englishmen (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin) and one American (Terry Gilliam, who also serves as animator)--had moments of unsurpassed brilliance. It's impressive, though not surprising, to see how perfectly undated 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' holds up 15 years after its theatrical release.
Like the TV show, 'Monty Python's Flying Circus,' 'The Meaning of Life' is made up of a number of wildly different segments (though some are linked by the unexpected appearance of a returning character or design device). The look of each sequence is different. Gilliam gets to show off his original vision of a rickety English office building gliding through a city of ruined monolithic skyscrapers in Chapter 1's 16-minute opener, 'The Crimson Permanent Assurance,' about a literally piratical accounting firm, while in Chapter 7's 'The Middle of the Film,' we're treated to '60s avant-garde pop art.
The film is convulsively funny, as well as being entirely outrageous in every sense of the word. 'The Meaning of Life' contains a wide enough variety of material to virtually insure that every viewer will at some point be outraged, by precisely the same gag that causes yet another to keel over laughing. Highlights include Chapter 4, set in 'The Third World,' (aka Yorkshire), with a devastating lampoon of Catholic Church procreative doctrine in the guise of an 'Oliver!'-like musical number, which sounds just like a real show tune; Chapter 12's Grim Reaper encountering partygoers, who believe he's a gardener; and Chapter 10's restaurant diner Mr. Creosote (Jones, who also directed), a scene that can still proudly hold its own as one of the grossest sequences in film comedy history.
Python purists may note that 'The Meaning of Life' isn't quite as hysterical as the group's two more narratively linear features, 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' and 'Monty Python's The Life of Brian,' perhaps because the sketch structure doesn't allow the deft building of gag upon gag. Still, we get all those things we look to Python for: Cleese's megalomaniacal authority figures; Jones's frumpy housewives; Idle's smarmy good-sports-in-the-face-of-tragedy and breezy musical insanities; Chapman's stuffy upper-crust men and daffy drag figures; the twinkly-eyed versatility of Palin; Gilliam's visual surprises. ('Max Headroom' fans should look for Matt Frewer in the opening segment as a cornered accountant.)
Throughout the film, a sextet of fish in a tank (played by the Pythons, courtesy of Gilliam's effects) keep grumbling about when the movie will get around to the meaning of life. At the climax, this is finally revealed. The Pythons have a well-deserved reputation for savaging anything faintly resembling sentiment. That they state the meaning of life without mockery, albeit very quickly, is as much a mark of daring as anything else they do here.