Monty Python & the Meaning of Life,
directed by Terry Jones
(Universal, 1983)

I love Monty Python, and even though The Meaning of Life is not my favorite of their films, I still like it a lot. It's a bit uneven, moving forward as it does in fits and starts. (As in the case of And Now for Something Completely Different, feature films do not make the best home for sketch comedy.)

Terry Gilliam's "Crimson Permanent Assurance" short is overlong, though amusing enough. Some of the other sketches misfire as well -- the search for the missing leg goes on far too long, though a good deal of the surrounding material ("A tiger? In Africa?" "Shh!" ... plus the hilarious examples of British pluck in battle) still makes me laugh. Gilliam coming out of the Zulu suit is also a good bit. The American tourist couple in the Hawaiian Torture Chamber restaurant, however, brings the film, not just to a screeching halt, but damn well near to narcolepsy (if I want this kind of dialogue, I'll watch a Pinter play, thanks very much). And I could live a long and happy life if I never had to hear "Christmas in Heaven" (hip-hip-hip-hip-hip hooray!) EVER again.

What does work: Terry Jones and Michael Palin's utterly brilliant "Every Sperm is Sacred," which does for the Catholic position on birth control what Yoko Ono did for the Beatles (sorry, that was a cheap shot). Ditto Eric Idle's "Universe Song," which compresses billions of years into three minutes and still can't prove the existence of intelligent life on Earth. The boys' school scenes are vintage Python (John Cleese's matter-of-fact sex-ed class is a scream), as are the World War I (II?) battle sequence and the drill sergeant bit ("'Aven't you ever seen the 'And of God before?!").

And, of course, it wouldn't be Python without some disgusting humor -- the "Organ Donor" sketch, with Gilliam as the Jewish-sounding Rastafari, is a classic ("Can we have your liver, then?"), as is "Mr. Creosote," which is simultaneously the most sickening and the most hilarious thing I've ever seen Python do. Jones makes you want to laugh and puke at the same time, and that's an incredible triumph. And then there is the "Death" sequence, with Cleese as the Grim Reaper, which almost defies description, it's so good. I love Palin's exit line in that bit. It's just too bad it's followed by the abovementioned "Heaven" sequence. (They should have gone to Hell instead -- it would have been a lot funnier!)

There are other good bits in this film too -- such as when the "Crimson Permanent Assurance" attacks the film, and the beyond-surreal "Middle of the Film" bit, but that's all my heart can stand for now. If I had my druthers I'd watch The Holy Grail or The Life of Brian instead, but The Meaning of Life is still worth watching.

review by
Jay Whelan

2 October 2010

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