The new animated 3-D film A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, throws another pebble to the avalanche of material produced by the six-member British comedy group Monty Python over the past 43 years. That pile includes the original 45 television shows, five feature films, shelves worth of books and albums, the stage musical Spamalot, as well as solo work – from John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers TV series to Terry Gilliam’s influential films, including Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys.
Directed by Bill Jones (Terry’s son), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett, the film features the voices of all the troupe’s members except Eric Idle. The late Graham Chapman magically provides his own voice-over, thanks to an audiobook recording of his 1980 comedic memoir (penned with four collaborators, including Douglas Adams), A Liar’s Autobiography. Consistent with the book’s multiple-authorship idea, the film features 14 different animation companies providing 17 different animation styles, from hand-drawn to stop-motion and much else in between, all in utterly unnecessary 3-D.
Even casual Python fans will already know that the tall, ginger-haired Chapman was a gay, Cambridge-educated doctor who struggled with alcoholism in Python’s early years and died of cancer in 1989, at the age of 48. He was Python’s leading man in the troupe’s feature films: An accidental Messiah in The Life of Brian and King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In Python’s television sketch work, he was often a reliably pompous official type, such as the colonel who ends the Dead Parrot sketch.
A Liar’s Biography doesn’t offer especially sensational lies, and the true parts stick to the less interesting non-Python segments of Chapman’s life, in a series of hop-scotching, more-or-less chronological chapters. A long childhood bit sees Chapman as an irritated, bored teenager, riding in the back of the car with his parents on a rainy seaside vacation. Later, there’s Cambridge and the Cambridge Footlights review, where he meets a tipsy Queen Mother. There’s a point where he counts the number of men and women he’d like to sleep with on a commuter train and decides, yes, he is gay.
Later, we see Cleese and Chapman, on David Frost’s shilling, sharing a bicycle in Ibiza, ostensibly on a writing project that involved wine, carousing and procrastination. Jumping ahead to the mid-seventies, we see Chapman’s sojourn in Los Angeles, where he attends celebrity-studded Hollywood parties with Keith Moon and drinks rivers of booze between bouts of mechanical shagging with strangers.
Apart from Chapman’s dry observational tone and the others’ silly voices, there’s not much here to touch Python fans accustomed to soaring in a higher stratosphere of humour. The more the animation strives to communicate Python absurdity, the more the project feels lifeless or, in Pythonese: Moribund, expired, demised, deceased, off-the-twig.
The film only really has a pulse when it switches to live action in a few brief archival snippets, most memorably in John Cleese’s appropriately outrageous eulogy for his late friend, an offering in the name of “anything for him, but mindless good taste.”