Largely funded by George Harrison because he heard the pitch and decided he wanted to see the movie, Monty Python's Life of Brian is not only a classic bit of comedy; it's a great film too. It wasn't always as revered (Criterion has released it) as it is today. Back in 1979 when it was first released there was a lot of controversy and the film was boycotted by groups and a campaign to ban the film was launched in
After the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus returned from
While this is going on a new boss at the talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning decides he wants something new and exciting (!!) for his show. His ludicrous ideas are clearly insane and unpractical; one of the writers has the idea of booking the Pythons against some of the protesters, which the guy in charge loves. Unfortunately the Pythons decline. Their steadfast in their refusal to explain their comedy until people working for them start getting death threats and boxes of shit (literally... feces) mailed to their homes. Finally enough is enough and two of the group agree to go on air and debate the merits of the film.
I'm a big Python fan and have been since the mid-1970s. I have seen several all of their movies in theaters during the original releases, some on opening day. That's why I was excited to see a documentary on the highly covered (at the time) controversy. Unfortunately that's not what this is. They have actors playing the Pythons and recreate fictionalized scenes. "Okay," you say, so it's a docudrama." Nope, not that either. In a docudrama a real event is dramatized, and though they will play loose with the facts in order to create tension and/or move the plot (one of the reasons I don't like them that much) they try to more or less stick to what really happened. This is a new genre of movie: the docucomedy. In this they willingly throw reality out of the window in order to get some laughs. While Cleese and Palin are preparing for the debate, they start to disagree and it turns into an all-out action battle with swords and light sabers (preformed by puppets no less), and there are Gilliam-like animation scenes including one where they Pythons are in hell writing the script with Satan's approval. The thing I have against this is that I don't know what's based on reality and what's totally made up. In one scene Palin proclaims that they're burning him in effigy, and opens the shades to show that they're doing it at that minute in his front yard. The joke wasn't that amusing so I wondered if he was burned in effigy. The fictionalized baddies who start the crusade are also troublesome as is their last minute change of heart.
I could overlook that if the movie was funny, but it isn't. Well, not unless you count the many, many, very old Python jokes that are sprinkled throughout. What is it about Monty Python fans and repeating jokes? I don't understand why they feel the need to recite entire passages from the shows and movies, but they do. I should know, I was one of those guys back in high school! The reason that Monty Python was such a popular and influential show is that they broke the mold. They did things that NO ONE was doing in comedy. They didn't recycle a bunch of Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball gags, they made up their own material. All of it.
That's the exact opposite of what happens in this movie. Here most of the gags are parts of Python skits, just performed by other actors. And I'm not talking about a reference here or there, it's through the whole film. Michael Palin's wife is Terry Jones in drag (get it?!? In the original show there were skits where Palin played opposite Terry Jones in drag!), they recreate the open window scene from Life of Brian, have an insane TV/Film producer with absurd ideas, have a character who stutters for comic effect (except in Life of Brian the jailer was only doing that to annoy people, he really didn't have an impediment. This guy does, since people with disorders are really hilarious!), a character interrupts a scene to clarify a point, John Cleese attacks an inanimate object with a tree branch, and there's a scene where someone can't get a word out because their boss says "SHH!" whenever they open their mouth. (Oh wait, that's not from Python, it's from Austin Powers. Never mind.) And that's not all of it either.
The tragically ironic thing is that the writer is obviously a Python fan, but he's trying to honor them by doing the very last thing they would want him to do: copying from someone else.
While I thought the jokes were either recycled of dumb and the script was lacking, the actors did a very good job. They all bared an uncanny resemblance to the Python's circa 1979 and acted like them (or at least how they acted on screen. If you assume that John Cleese was just pretending to be a disagreeable smart-ass in Faulty Towers and his films, then maybe their portrayals bore no resemblance to reality.) Charles Edwards made Michael Palin seem to be the most realistic character of the lot, and Darren Boyd really nailed a lot of John Cleese's mannerisms.
This two-disc set (one DVD, one Blu-ray) comes in a single-width Blu-ray keepcase with a slipcover.
The 2.0 PCM soundtrack was fine. I was disappointed that it didn't come with a multi-channel track, but since it's mainly dialog-based I can live with it. The dialog is clean and clear and there are no defects of note.
The 1080i transfer looks very good. In the climactic TV debate scene there are some whites that are too hot but I assume that was an intentional choice made to simulate what watching TV looked like back in 1979. Aside from that the colors were solid and the lines were tight. A nice looking show.
The bonus features are really disappointing. I was hoping for some vintage footage of the actual Pythons discussing the movie at the time. Including the actual TV debate would have been wonderful, but sadly it's not to be found on this set. What viewers do get are 9-minutes worth of deleted scenes and 19-minutes worth of outtakes. There's also a silent montage of the creation of the phonotrope that is featured in the opening credits. I thought that was the coolest thing about the movie and was astonished to discover it wasn't the CGI creation I assumed it was. Make sure you check that 5-minute extra out, it's well worth watching.
The subject matter is immensely interesting, but the filmmakers decided that they'd rather try to recycle Monty Python jokes rather than tell the story of what really happened. While the acting is very good, the script is a disappointment as is the lack of vintage film of the Pythons as an extra. As a die-hard Python fan I was glad to see this for the slight insight it provided, so for those who have everything that the Pythons have ever done I'd recommend making this a rental. But you have to own a copy of Dr. Fegg's Nasty Book of Knowledge to qualify.