No. 49: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Like most nerdy kids, I discovered Monty Python and the Holy Grail just before high school and wrote its punchlines upon my dorky heart. Silly French accents, random violent rabbit attacks, musical numbers…it was all a weird prepubescent boy could hope for. Then in college, I discovered the Python troupe’s less famous but perhaps more respected film effort, The Life of Brian, a stunningly irreverent but achingly brilliant religious satire.

I had certainly heard mention of the other Python movie, The Meaning of Life, but not being a particularly rapid fan of the group beyond their film work, I never bothered to check it out…until I decided to embark on this little project.

There appear to be conflicting accounts about the origin of the film but at least one member of the group, John Cleese, seems to have suggested in interviews that after the smashing critical success of Life of Brian, the group was offered a much larger budget from Universal than they’d ever seen before. Basically, they did it for a paycheck.

Watching the film, that production history would explain a lot, not because it’s a film that feels lazy but a film that is without real inspiration. The boys were out to prove themselves and their style of humor in Holy Grail. They were out to make a brilliant and inflammatory comedic statement in Brian. In The Meaning of Life, they gave it their all and never cease to push the envelope in nearly every sketch, but there’s no aspirations beyond that.

As a part of this project, I’ve been reviewing film writing and criticism from 1983 as well to try and get a gauge of what critics thought of these films at the time and compare it to how these films are thought of today. Roger Ebert, who in 1983 seemed a great deal harsher than than he is today, said of The Meaning of Life, “This movie is so far beyond good taste, and so cheerfully beyond, that we almost feel we’re being one-upped if we allow ourselves to be offended.” Ebert’s suggestion that the Pythons were simply playing an old fashioned game of British one-upmanship seems to be right on. With nothing left to prove and money in their pockets, these masters of English comedy were simply trying to defy the expectations of even their own fans.

Even those who aren’t offended are likely going to be surprised at the lengths to which the Pythons take their jokes. In one segment (the film is divided into different, unrelated episodes meant to represent the different stages of life), an enormous fat man vomits all over a restaurant and all the people in it. Another scene shows a man having his internal organs being forcibly removed as he screams. Neither of these scenes offended me but neither of them worked for me as jokes either. A lot of this may have to do with the time that has passed since 1983 and the redefining of what is shocking in those 26 years. What we see in the film could easily make it onto network television today, possibly in primetime. At the time, it was enough to get the film banned in several countries.

Shock comedy appears to come in waves, losing its effectiveness after audiences become immune and numb to its power. I think today, audiences seem to be gravitating toward a gentler, more subtle form of comedy, brought on by the influence of comedians like Ricky Gervais and Larry David. This season’s biggest family sitcom hit Modern Family has a lot more in common with Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run than it does with I Love Lucy (which itself was a bit of shock comedy).

The film does contain at least one real gem, a short film that precedes the feature titled The Crimson Permanent Assurance. The short was originally intended to be yet another segment of the film, specifically a five minute segment to be directed by Terry Gilliam with his own cast and crew. Left unsupervised by the production company, Gilliam finished with a film that was three times as long with twice the budget than was originally intended.

The result is a magnificent live-action fantasy trip in which a group of elderly insurance clerks stage a mutiny in their corporate headquarters and then unfurl a set of sails that take their skyscraper sailing away out of the city. The film plays like an Errol Flynn swashbuckler set in modern corporate London, with file cabinets being fired through the window like cannons. It’s a truly entertaining piece of whimsical filmmaking by an ambitious, young Gilliam who was still trying to establish himself as a separate voice from the Pythons.

This is certainly not a light comedy to pop in on a Sunday afternoon (particularly right after you’ve been to church) and to be honest, it was pretty disappointing to me as a Monty Python fan. While there are some individual moments in the film that work, like the extremely irreverent musical number “Every Sperm is Sacred” or the rugby match between a team of 12-year-olds and a team of full-grown adults teachers, most of the scenes are very difficult to watch and fall flat as comedic premises. This is probably rightfully the least-known of the three Monty Python films and will likely remain so simply because there aren’t enough memorable laughs for the audience to hold onto.