WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Older but no wiser, the Monty Python gang assemble to mull over the seven ages of man and wonder what life is all about.
If ever a series of films cried out to be described by the word ‘trajectory’, it’s the work of the Pythons. And Now For Something Completely Different saw the boys – plus stalwart Carol Cleveland – naively commit a number of TV sketches to celluloid; in Holy Grail, they learnt about filmcraft and sustaining a joke over feature length; and in Life of Brian, they assembled a near-perfect combination of script, acting and design. Unfortunately, there really was only one way to go from such a high watermark.
But first of all, here’s a brief outline of the film’s contents: Meaning of Life opens with a Terry Gilliam short, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, a (largely Pythonless) tale of oppressed English bankers turned renegade financial pirates, before it begins in earnest with two differing versions of birth – a satire on the impersonal nature of modern hospitals, followed by a scathing attack on Catholic contraceptive policy, leavened by the wonderful show tune ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’.
The film then highlights typically British reactions to school life and sex education before moving on to War, taking a break for a surreal game of ‘Find the Fish’ in the middle of the film. Next up is the disturbing ‘Live Organ Transplants’, leading into ‘The Galaxy Song’ and perhaps the film’s most memorable sketch, Terry Jones’ extraordinarily gross ‘Mr Creosote’. All that remains is Death, the Grim Reaper turning up to spoil a dinner party and escort the disgruntled guests to a gaudy afterlife, where every day is Christmas Day.
The good news is that when inspiration strikes, the Monty Python team can still deliver the goods. ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’ is a brilliant take-off of Oliver! which benefits from Michael Palin’s improved acting chops and Terry Jones’ increased experience at directing, while ‘Mr Creosote’ manages to push at the limits of taste and still be extremely funny, thanks largely to John Cleese’s turn as the unflappable waiter (the question ‘Wafer thin mint?’ will haunt dinner tables for decades to come). Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impression is also very funny. The Middle of the Film is a refreshing bit of meaningless foolishness, while Gilliam’s not-so-short short is a nice concept which also foreshadows Brazil; that is, when it’s not sneaking its way into the main feature.
Sadly, that’s about it for the good news. For one thing, the reversion to a sketch format feels like – and is – a real regression, while the script falters whenever it shoehorns in the titular unifying theme, which feels like – and was – an afterthought. For another, the quality of some of the sketches just isn’t up to snuff: for example Palin’s shouty Sergeant Major, the extremely juvenile execution by nearly-nude women, or the meandering contributions by Jones and Idle in the aftermath of Mr Creosote’s demise; and for another thing besides, there are too many musical numbers, as though Idle was desperate to repeat the impact of ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’.
But more than any of this, the major issue with Meaning of Life is that for a comedy movie, it’s pretty bloody gloomy. I like black comedy as much as the next man, but such a bleak, jaded air hangs over many of the sketches that the natural reaction is not to laugh but to despair – ‘Live Organ Transplants’ is one example, the ‘Suicidal Leaves’ animation and what follows afterwards another. That said, I like the ghost cars, and the excruciating climactic cabaret of ‘Christmas in Heaven’ is an over-produced treat.
Other than that, there’s not an awful lot to be said. Each of the troupe have their moments but fail to shine as they did in previous films, apparently muted by not having meatier, longer-lasting characters to develop; and the whole project is dominated by a feeling that it was pushed kicking and screaming into the world, only the promise of a decent payday forcing the Pythons to keep going in the face of mostly mediocre material. The Meaning of Life is the most cinematic Python film by a long chalk; it’s very occasionally brilliant and often quite clever, in a cynical way – the Grand Jury at Cannes liked it well enough in 1983. But it doesn’t half make you yearn for the innocent days of the Fish Slapping Dance.