THE BIT BEFORE THE THING
They say "analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog. No one is that interested, and the frog dies." Luckily, as we embark on an examination of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, I can say two things up front: There will be no dissecting and the frog is already dead.
Most people are probably familiar with the "gluttony-sketch" from this movie. It's the one where a grotesquely obese man sits down in a restaurant, projectile vomits all over the place and then eats until he bursts. The sketch perfectly encapsulates the problems with the film as a whole: Most scene have one joke. It's crude. There's no cleverness or thought provoking satire behind the madness. And it's overlong.
THE BIT AFTER THE BIT BEFORE THE THING
The original Monty Python TV-series (henceforth called The Show) was a rambling string of barely connected sketches that barely made any sense. Barely. And it is the best TV-series ever created. When Monty Python moved to movies, they became a lot more focused, even though the sketch format to a large extend still defined their work. The Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979) both stayed more or less within their designated themes, and they both worked exquisitely.
It's ironic then that despite going back to the nonsense that defined them The Meaning of Life fails both at being focused and rambling. It's something altogether more mundane. Python mundane, but mundane nonetheless.
A big intro song with Terry Gilliam animation promises that the film will discuss the meaning of life. Most sketches do relate in some way to life, but then again that could be said for almost anything in life - that it relates to life, I mean. So, would renaming it "random sketches about life" fix this film? Nope. The problems run deeper.
THE THING (OR THE BIT)
The film opens with The Crimson Permanent Assurance. A 16 minute isolated short, clearly the brainchild of Terry Gilliam. Gilliam often created his own worlds within the Python universe, so it makes sense that he should be allowed to do that here as well.
The short looks absolutely gorgeous. It's cleverly shot, with fantastic production design and impressive (for the time and budget) model work. Unfortunately this is a rather dishonest start. It has virtually nothing to do with the film, except for a brief return of the pirates in the main feature, and yet it suffers from the same problems as the rest of the project: It's one joke. It's too long. And it doesn't say much.
Then the feature presentation begins.
We open with two sketches about "the miracle of birth". First a clumsy doctor sketch, which quickly turns out to be a fairly toothless indictment of the medical system, with doctors being more concerned about financing than helping patients. That's it. Again, there's only one layer here, and it's a fairly predictable one too.
Then we move to Yorkshire for a sketch about a family with about a hundred kids. Cue jokes about Catholics not using condoms, which explodes into an admittedly impressive song and dance number. While the sight of little kids singing "Every Sperm Is Sacred" is delightfully disturbing and destined to produce a chuckle or two, once again, the sketch is too damn long, and it's one joke, with one layer. I could go through the whole film and repeat myself endlessly, because I'm afraid the trend outlined by the first chapter of the film continues.
The Meaning of Life is just not zany enough. It's too obvious. It almost pains me to say so, because when the hell was Monty Python ever predictable? Even when the setup is completely obvious and the punchline is a sitting duck (or sheep), the boys still found ways to surprise. One thing is certain: You could rarely, if ever, see the end of a sketch coming. That's not the case in this film.
Even more disturbingly, The Meaning of Life is nowhere near as clever or as searing as The Show. The Pythons take aim at all the familiar targets - religion, the education system, and the sexual frustrations of the middle and upper class - but they appear to have nothing to say. The result is often crude or just over the top, in an unfunny way. Like the "Live organ donation"-sketch - which is way too bloody and gruesome. Taken out of context some of the moments in that sketch would not read as jokes. And what's with making so many stupid characters American? Since when did Python pick so low-hanging fruit?
Despite the slow pace and the general lack of jokes, a few sequences surprise by being completely joke free. Like the restaurant sketch, where a couple struggles trying to find a conversation subject, or the completely useless "Death visits"-bit near the end. Many of these sequences seem to exists in lieu of Terry Gilliam animated bits, which would normally provide the transition from one sketch to the next, and give us something funny and nonsensical to look at along the way. In The Show these transitions enhanced the sketch format by allowing us to skip the boring bits, jump straight into the good bits, and get out before the joke gets dull, or before we get to the punchline. That last one is particularly useful if there isn't any.
When a sketch was abandoned in The Show it never felt like a cop out. In The Meaning of Life many jokes simply peter out, and it feels almost as if the Pythons lose interest along the way.
Despite this rather harsh critique of the film The Meaning of Life is not completely without familiar Python antics. Like the fact that the film is introduced by some talking fish in an aquarium at a restaurant, waiting to die, like their friend on a plate nearby. Or the break in the middle of the film called "the middle of the film", discussing the fact that we've reached the middle of the film. There's the grotesque sight of a teacher demonstrating the act of intercourse in front of a room full of kids, and a war sketch, where a group of soldiers desperately try to celebrate the birthday of their commanding officer before the final raid, which is as close to the old magic as the film gets.
Sadly these few scattered moments of funny, only serve to put the shortcomings of the rest of the endeavor into sharp focus.
THE BIT AFTER THE THING (AKA THE FINAL THING, OR POST-BIT)
I find myself in a peculiar situation: I love Monty Python and everything they do, but I can't stand The Meaning of Life. It's just not funny to me. I almost wish it didn't exist.
The Meaning of Life is a sad swan song for the Pythons. When Graham Chapman died in 1989 - the inconsiderate bastard! - he single-handedly ruined the chance of a proper reunion, but that's okay, he was always the weak link and who likes bloody gays anyway? (<---joke) But that's beside the point. We'll always have the old shows, we'll always have the other films. And every time there's a partial reunion of the troupe we're reminded of the wonder that is Monty Python. And that is all we need.