TIFF 2012: A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman – Movie Review
Directors and Screenplay: Ben Timlett, Bill Jonesa and Jeff Simpson Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland and Philip Bulcock Runtime: 82 Minutes TIFF 2012 Programme: Special Presentation
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is many things, but its most certainly not predictable. Though the entire film plays out more or less like an extended version of one of the animated interludes from any of the comedy troupe’s feature films (recalling the sequences from The Holy Grail, most notably), there is no denying that this is a bizarre kaleidoscope of a film, completely disjointed and lacking in cohesiveness (intentionally so).
Yet, there’s something strangely endearing about it. Co-directed by Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson and presented in 3D – because, why not? – A Liar’s Autobiography takes the recordings of the titular Python reading his “biography” aloud shortly before his death in the late-1980s, then edits them into the film as narration and the main driving force of the story. Though not directly involved in the creative process of the film, nearly all of the remaining members of the troupe have contributed voice-work or some other element to the film.
So why isn’t the film funnier? Monty Python is one of the greatest comedy troupes to have ever graced the screen – big or small – but A Liar’s Autobiography is light on the laughs. Sure, there are plenty of chuckles to be had here and there throughout the film – namely because of Chapman’s pointed humor, which crackles throughout – but for the most part, there is a noticeable lack of spiritual channeling of the classic Python humor that one hopes to get from the film. The directors give it their all in making the film reverently faithful to that spirit, but most of the laughs come from things which are out of their hands – like Chapman’s 25-year-old narration.
Still, there’s a lot to like in A Liar’s Autobiography. The varied animation styles (there are something like 17 different aesthetic forms, and they weave in and out of one another with absolutely no warning) are quite striking, and many of them are downright beautiful. The 3D is entirely serviceable, even though it’s obviously used only for gimmicky and comedic purposes. Chapman’s narration is both funny and heartfelt, not to mention incredibly intelligent; his references to Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (the doctor is voiced in one scene by Cameron Diaz because, again, why not?) provide a context that seems missing from the first act of the film, and the bizarre imagery suddenly starts to coalesce into a symbolic goldmine. It’s unexpected to say that a film like this may just demand a second viewing, but that may be the case here – there are simply too many visual motifs and symbolic references peppered throughout the film to get them all on a single try.
And Chapman’s story – buried under abstract metaphor or just plain old fabrication – is a sincere and moving exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality, his vices and his fame. It’s a highlight in a film that tends to be lacking in the belly-laughs department: a refreshingly dramatic tale of complex emotions, hidden behind a thin veil of absurdist humor and abstract imagery. The comedian’s perfectly twisted take on his own failure to come to grips with his homosexuality (or bisexuality? The film doesn’t make it clear – or, rather, it makes it intentionally ambiguous) is touching, and it helps keep the plot from meandering its way into irrelevance.
It’s clear from the get-go that Jones, Timlett and Simpson are all gigantic fans of Monty Python’s canon, and they do their very best to capture the essence of what made the absurdist troupe great. Unfortunately, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is ultimately a mixed bag: at its best a unique and creative Freudian interpretation of Chapman’s troubled life and at its worst a colossal missed opportunity.