'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life': THR's 1983 Review
On March 31, 1983, the Monty Python team unveiled their latest feature, The Meaning of Life, in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter's original review of the R-rated Universal comedy is below.
Midway through Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, there occurs a restaurant scene — set in a tres elegante dining room, habited by black-tied dinner guests and one horrendously overweight patron — which evolves into, possibly, the grossest single sequence spliced into a mainstream film release. Unbelievably crass. And extremely funny.
That particular sequence sums up the essence of, in general, Monty Python humor, Python irreverence, Python unpredictability and, in specific, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Rude and amusing. Vulgar and comic. Gross and sidesplitting. As such, the Universal release is certain to offend platoons of the citizenry (their outcries will only help muster focus at the box-office level) and delight even more. A sense of humor is required here, but a good time can be had by all who are willing to unbend a bit.
The film marks the fifth theatrical starrer for the Python ensemble composed of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, all of whom were involved in the scripting as well as performing, each playing a hodgepodge of vignette roles, from nuns to soldiers to fish. (For the record: The early Python big-screeners are And Now for Something Completely Different (1970), ... And the Holy Grail (1975), The Life of Brian (1979) and ... Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982).
Among the madness, prefeature, there's a Python short called "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," a wittily conceived and executed fable about modern big business told in pirate terms. Not surprisingly, characters from the featurette later invade the main feature, bringing forth an editorial apology on screen.
Once the feature actually starts, there comes a virtual onslaught of relentless insanity, 10 basic revue acts in all, separated by titles and under the umbrella theme of a supposed Python search for "the meaning of life." As in any sketch parade, some material plays better than others, although most here come close to hitting positive marks.
In the process, the Python sextet takes pot shots at Catholics, Christmas, sex education, war and soldiers, birth, British Army officers, Noel Coward, Jews, nuns, death and everything imaginable in-between. There are also several musical production numbers, cleverly staged by Arlene Phillips, most of which will raise hair on sensitive heads. If church brethren found Monty Python's Life of Brian objectionable, this newest stab will cause coronaries.
Audience opinion will vary as to which section plays bets, or offends the most. Part 6, titled "The Autumn Years" and encompassing the restaurant scene with Palin as an exploding glutton and a devilish Noel Coward satire (with Idle brightly singing "Penis Song" to a blase supperclub audience), will doubtless cause the most talk. But not far behind will be Part 8 ("Death"), which depicts heaven as a gaudy replica of a Vegas showroom, with Mary and Joseph doing cha-cha-chas while a massive chorus belts out "Christmas in Heaven."
Other fracturing, and outrageous, sequences include "The Miracle of Birth: The Third World," with its slams at religious doctrines that prohibit contraceptives (underscored by a big production number, "Every Sperm Is Sacred," a la Oona White's choreography for Oliver!), and "Growth and Learning," which satirizes a boy's school sex education class lecture, with the headmaster (Cleese) making an actual demonstration, with the help of his wife, but unable to attract the attention of his bored class. In between the elongated cutups, there are priceless comedic bits.
If ... The Meaning of Life is undeniably tasteless, it is also imaginative and played with a soft edge that never reads as bitter, only mischievous. Breakneck pacing by Jones, who also directed, and editor Julian Doyle additionally helps ease some of the sting. There is also enough fast-clipped insanity in the playing to inspire a second-viewing from many, another box-office plus.
Gilliam has contributed some clever animation sequences and bridges and other technical credits are fine. Overall, however, [the] picture is a communal affair, with equal credit going in the six directions of the Python members. It seems a cinch to become wildly popular with young adults, and a money grabber for Universal. — Robert Osborne, originally published on March 25, 1983