A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman: Toronto Review
An unorthodox retelling of the life of the late Monty Python member that features the voices of John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, plus Cameron Diaz as Freud.
TORONTO – And now for something completely different. That catchphrase from Monty Python’s Flying Circus seems also to be the overriding philosophy behind A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. An anarchic, often very funny series of sketches executed in 17 different animation styles, the film is likely to tickle longtime aficionados of the iconic British comedy collective. But its episodic structure pretty much excludes real depth or illumination from this freewheeling, beyond-the-grave 3D bioportrait.
With typical Python irreverence, Graham Chapman is identified as “the dead one.” Unlike his fellow troupe members John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, all of whom went on to subsequent careers, Chapman never quite found a niche post-Python. He moved to Los Angeles for a period in the late 1970s and died of throat cancer in 1989.
The source for this film was Chapman’s 1980 fictionalized memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography (Volume VI), co-written with his partner of some 20 years, David Sherlock, with contributions from Douglas Addams, David Yallop and Alex Martin. Chapman made a recording of the book before he died, which allows him to narrate his own story here. Cleese, Gilliam, Jones and Palin are among those brought in by co-directors Bill Jones (Terry’s son), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett to play themselves and other roles.
The bone-dry mock seriousness that made Monty Python such an iconoclastic force in British comedy is evident in an audio snippet over the opening titles, in which Chapman solemnly requests 30 seconds of abuse from an audience that happily complies. Recreated via cutout animation, an Oscar Wilde skit from a 1970s New York live show in which Chapman forgot his lines then serves as a nominal framing device.
Accompanied by Chapman’s admission that the material presented may contain little more than a grain of truth, the film assembles a scrambled chronology of his life. It covers his childhood during WWII as a bookish, precocious kid who escaped drab suburban reality via Biggles aerial adventure stories, the Roman novels of Robert Graves and his own natural propensity toward a rich fantasy life. While in his head Chapman summered at a chateau in Nice, the family’s annual retreats to dismal British seaside towns are recreated as ordeals of bickering confinement in the car looking out at a rainy panorama, with his parents voiced by Terry Jones and Palin.
A detour into sexual psychology as revealed in a recurring dogfight dream – in which Freud is voiced by Cameron Diaz – doesn’t quite hit the comic target. But it serves to reveal Chapman’s relatively uncomplicated coming to terms with his homosexuality and usher in a recap of his early sexual experience.
Chapman’s years at Eton and Cambridge yield some amusing nuggets, notably an encounter with a gin-tippling Queen Mother. It was in the Footlights revue at Cambridge that he first encountered Cleese, who became his writing partner, notably on David Frost’s BBC show, The Frost Report.
Wryly caricatured as a champagne-swilling luvvie whose vocabulary doesn’t go much beyond “Super,” Frost sent them to Spain to write a screenplay, an unproductive trip recounted in a funny back-and-forth between Chapman and Cleese on a tandem bicycle in Ibiza. While the Spain stay generated no significant work, it did allow Chapman to meet Sherlock, who materializes out of the ocean like a mustachioed Venus.
The unfettered narrative approach and frequent surreal discursions are engaging enough early on. But they become a weakness as the film advances through Chapman’s life at the height of Monty Python’s popularity. There are laughs in the reactions of friends and colleagues such as Marty Feldman and Keith Moon when Chapman comes out about his sexuality. But given the audacious nonchalance with which he publicly emerged from the closet on a British talk show in the 1970s, some social context would have enhanced this material’s impact.
The same goes for Chapman’s years of alcoholism and sexual hedonism. Python-heads will enjoy a disco-era elaboration on the cheery ditty “Sit On My Face (and Tell Me That You Love Me).” But the film becomes repetitive and frustratingly superficial as it skims over extreme behavior seemingly driven by insecurity. A sketch covering Chapman’s lack of focus during a looping session for Life of Brian barely touches on the professional compromises caused by his drinking.
As Cleese points out in his hilarious eulogy at Chapman’s memorial service, he had an aversion to “mindless good taste.” The filmmakers have clearly taken that to heart in adhering to a flippant tone, despite occasional forays into weightier themes such as morality and religion. But while the subject seems to invite darker, more analytical consideration and is lacking in poignancy, the prevailing absurdism is certainly in keeping with the Monty Python tradition.
Like any project stringing together aesthetically diverse vignettes, the results are hit and miss – both visually and in terms of their comic precision. (Some of the drollest stuff comes from fleeting asides, such as a quick glimpse of David Hockney and Alan Bennett taking tea in space.) Perhaps sticking to a single cutout style reminiscent of classic Python animation would have given the film a more unified feel. But as a salute to one of the comedy troupe’s more under-appreciated members, A Liar’s Autobiography offers its share of merriment, and hardcore fans will find much to enjoy.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation; EPIX/Brainstorm Media, Nov. 2)
Voice cast: Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland, Philip Bulcock, Cameron Diaz, Stephen Fry, Rob Buckman, Jamielisa Jacquemin, Diana Kent, Lloyd Kaufman, Tom Hollander
Production company: Bill & Ben Productions
Directors-screenwriters: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett
Producers: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett
Executive producers: Meyer Shwartzstein, Mark Sandell, Aurelio Landolt, Hanspeter Jaberg, Mark Greenberg, Douglas A. Lee
Animation producer: Justin Weyers
Editor: Bill Jones
Music: John Greswell, Christopher Taylor
Sales: SC Films International
No rating, 82 minutes