Comedy as we know it today would not exist if it were not for the pioneering efforts of a comedic troupe known simply as "Monty Python." Comprised of British comedians John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and an American animator by the name of Terry Gilliam, Monty Python had a groundbreaking TV show on the BBC in the late 60's and early 70's. But it was more than just a television series. It was a launching ground for all kinds of subversive and alien ideas that the Pythons gleefully tossed at the audience with no regard for taste or good manners. This resulted in several albums, side projects, and three motion pictures, of which Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is the third and final. The Meaning of Life came out in 1983, nine years after the TV series ended, and four years after their previous film, Life of Brian. Being so far removed from their original roots, Meaning of Life is the most standalone piece of work the troupe ever did together, as well as the most tasteless.
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is split into the various portions of the life cycle: Birth, The Teenage Years, Middle Age, Death and the Afterlife, and the important things in between, such as sex and live organ donations. Interspersed throughout are sections where the Pythons appear as fish in a tank in a restaurant, commenting on everything going on. The film features several musical compositions by Eric Idle, and opens with a short film shot by Terry Gilliam (who had at this point already made Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and was about to make his greatest work, Brazil) called "The Crimson Permanent Assurance."
The episodic nature of the movie makes it the closest thing to an episode of "Flying Circus" that the Pythons ever produced for the big screen (excluding ...And Now For Something Completely Different, which was a collection of skits from the show edited into a movie), but at the same time feels utterly different from anything else they ever did. By 1983, every group member had side projects that they poured their passions into, and you can feel their individual voices interjecting themselves into the general flow. The most obvious example of this is "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," a short Terry Gilliam shot while much of The Meaning of Life was in production. The short looks and feels nothing like the Python material (even though it does make a wonderful setup for a classic Python-esque payoff later in the main feature), and shows just how far Gilliam had strayed from the original mold. Even his animated sequences don't have the cheeky wit of his earlier work.
That being said, even the tensions of each Python pulling in their own directions cannot dampen the natural working relationship they had all developed from so many years of close contact, and The Meaning of Life has as many brilliant moments as anything the troupe ever did. Most notable are the birthing sequence where the doctors care more about showing off their expensive equipment (including the infamous "machine that goes PING!") than actual patient care, Catholics who have too many children (prompting one of the group's greatest song and dance numbers, "Every Sperm Is Sacred"), and the utterly surreal "Middle of the Film," where Terry Jones looks for a fish in what must surely be the oddest way possible. While a few of the segments do fall flat (including the Wartime sequence and unfortunately the film's climactic musical number in heaven), the laughs flow fast and freely throughout.
Perhaps one of the best things about the piece is how you can see the old Python routine rubbing up against each actor's matured performing style. The film bounces between pure Python ridiculousness and subtler, more textured gags that reveal themselves better upon repeated viewings. Take, for example, the scene where Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Graham Chapman play British officers in the Zulu Wars. The performances are all so understated, and the comedy mostly comes from what's not being said. Contrast that with Michael Palin's turn as a drill sergeant who lets all of his soldiers run off to do anything else they'd prefer. Both scenes are brilliant and hilarious, but they're done completely differently and the former isn't something you saw much in Python up to this point.
The Meaning of Life is also the most crass and tasteless of all the Python works, for better or worse. Most famous (or infamous) is Terry Jones' turn as the world's fattest man, eating in a fine French restaurant. He spends the entire sequence projectile vomiting, while John Cleese plays the put-upon host. Other outrageous sequences include the Live Organ Donors, where two men take organs out of still-living people, and a scene where John Cleese, as an uptight Catholic school teacher, has sex with his wife in front of his students in order to fulfill their sex ed requirements. The movie is a take no prisoners kind of production, which just about everyone getting skewered and ridiculed. Some consider this to be a natural outgrowth of the kind of rude comedy the Pythons had been practicing since day one, while others took it as an indicator of creative bankruptcy and a sign that the group should have quit while they were ahead. It is a very polarizing experience, but those who love such humor will find some of the best and ultimate examples of it here.
In the end, regardless of whatever flaws it may have, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is still the final work from the world's greatest comedy team, and as such is funnier than 90% of all the comedic works ever released. Love them or hate them, the Pythons have made their mark and history will never forget them. Just for that, The Meaning of Life is essential viewing.
The HD DVD:
Universal Pictures presents Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. To put it simply, the image here looks awful. The problem starts right at the source. The film was not a big budget production, and Universal clearly spent no money on fixing up the available materials. There's dust, dirt, and scratches all over the print. There's practically no improvement in detail over the DVD version, and the image is flat and lacking dimensionality. Just about the only advantage this transfer has over the DVD is in its color reproduction, which is more accurate and eye-catching than in any other home video presentation. But as a lifelong Python fan, I was sorely disappointed with the transfer on this disc.
Universal remixed the film in 5.1 for their 2-disc DVD release, and the same mix appears here in a higher bitrate Dolby Digital Plus mix. Of course, to call this a 5.1 mix is kind of misleading, as barely anything moves beyond the stereo soundstage originally used in the film. The musical numbers in particular get a bad rap, sounding too tinny and compressed. The dialogue, luckily, fares a lot better, but even then, it's nothing to write home about.
Universal has ported over just about every supplement from their 2-disc DVD, all in standard definition.
Eric Idle Introduction: A very brief but clever introduction from Eric Idle.
Commentary with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam: Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam comment over the film, including "The Crimson Permanent Assurance." Gilliam is by far the more dominant commentator, which works well because he is far more penetrating and insightful than Jones, who tends to laugh at the sketches more than make meaningful comments.
Soundtrack For The Lonely: A joke in the most liberal sense of the word, this alternate audio track pumps in the sounds of a man who mutters and shouts at the screen. Not funny.
The Meaning of Making The Meaning of Life: What more could you want than to interview the five remaining Pythons about their past work? That's exactly what we get (along with some vintage interviews to include Graham Chapman) in this fine supplement. All the members of the group are completely candid, and often hilarious. Anyone interested in Monty Python, or, hell, comedy itself should watch this.
Educational Tips To Prepare You For The Real World: A short sketch with Michael Palin and John Cleese, advertising two competing English schools. The funniest bit comes from John Cleese's wonderfully over the top South African accent.
Un Film De John Cleese: A trailer for the John Cleese version of the film, which features only John Cleese. Cute and to the point.
Snipped Bits: 19 minutes of deleted scenes and extended takes. Some very funny stuff here.
Remastering a Masterpiece: A hilarious send-up of restoration featurettes, this sketch features Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin.
Song and Dance: A look at two of the film's musical numbers.
Songs Unsung: Alternate versions of the film's songs.
Virtual Reunion: I must admit I'm not quite sure what kind of joke the Pythons were trying to get across here, but it doesn't work. It does feature all the surviving Pythons on the screen at the same time, though. It's a shame Universal couldn't have included the actual Python reunion that took place at the Aspen Comedy Festival (and included Eddie Izzard).
What Fish Think: A shot of a fish tank with fake thoughts inserted by the Pythons.
Promotional Material: A bevy of trailers, TV spots, radio ads, and more, including rejected concepts and a telepathic advertisement.
While not quite to the level of Holy Grail or Life of Brian, Monty Python's Meaning of Life is still a comedy classic. And while it's admirable that Universal ported over all the DVD extras, the poor sound and image quality on this HD DVD mark virtually no improvement over the regular DVD already available. While the quality of the picture itself is great, this is only worth purchasing for hardcore Monty Python fans or people who have not previously purchased the DVD. Reluctantly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.