Monty Python's Meaning of Life SE Review

Monty Python fans have always been divided on the question of which of their films is best. I think it’s fair to say that the majority favour Life of Brian, possibly because it’s the most consistent and carefully structured of the movies. Others prefer the sheer anarchic silliness of Holy Grail. However, my personal favourite has always been The Meaning Of Life. Critics have frequently labelled it patchy, needlessly sensational and lacking in plot or narrative drive. But I think that, at its best, it contains the most inspired stuff the team ever produced and is at least as funny as Life of Brian, especially if you’re a fan of the original TV series, which itself was pretty inconsistent. Meaning of Life, to date their last film work together, has a turbulent comic energy that atones for the occasional weak spots and is so full of the kind of inventive insanity for which we love Python that I can’t think of many other films I’m so happy to view again and again.

The film, much to the highly vocal chagrin of John Cleese, is basically a “ragbag of sketches”, loosely linked around the various stages of life, from birth to death, and the afterlife. It contains animation, nine musical numbers, live organ donation, buckets of vomit, cardinals being carried around in prams, reckless chartered accountants, breasts, John Cleese’s arse, transvestitism, a lot of fish and, of course, the machine that goes PING! In other words, it’s as typical a slice of Python as you’re ever going to see and, even better, it’s Python at its most cruel, violent and surreal. One isn’t surprised to learn that preview audiences frequently walked out during the Mr Creosote scene but it’s rather more astonishing that the film managed to earn the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. As if to accentuate the sketch-based nature of the piece, it’s divided into eleven sections– including a prologue, which is to all intents and purposes a separate film.

The Crimson Permanent Assurance

Terry Gilliam’s major contribution to the piece, this short film is one of his combinations of the banal and the fantastic. A small firm, tired of toiling under the cruel reign of an American corporation decides to rebel, turning the landlocked office building into a pirate ship and taking to the high seas of international finance. It’s a charming notion and at a tight quarter of an hour, not a moment too long. Gilliam’s usual visual strength is much in evidence and the casting is perfect – what Time Bandits did for actors under four feet tall, this does for senior citizens. True, it’s not particularly funny but it’s good-natured and ends with a joke which is so typical of Gilliam that it might could serve as his epitaph.

The Meaning of Life Part I: The Miracle of Birth

Following an introduction by the recurring fish and a beautifully animated credits sequences – scored to a pastiche cabaret song by Eric Idle – the film proper begins with a silly but funny sketch about NHS budgets and the dehumanisation of the patient. Well, it’s actually about the hospital administrator, the most expensive machine in the hospital – “Aren’t you lucky !” beams John Cleese at the poor, bewildered mother – and the aforementioned Machine That Goes PING! All terribly silly but nicely played and charmingly dated by Graham Chapman’s reference to a video format he calls Bay-Ta-Max.

The Miracle of Birth Part 2: The Third World

This second part of the film is possibly the best and is certainly the most consistently funny. It begins in the Third World – or Yorkshire – and recounts an epic tale of Catholicism run rampant as Michael Palin’s recently unemployed mill worker informs his numerous children that due to being destitute he will have to sell them for medical experimentation. A deliciously funny dialogue, mingling intellectual overreaching with the dead common in the best tradition of the Mrs Jean-Paul Sartre sketch, concludes in an insanely ambitious and remarkably successful full-scale musical number called “Every Sperm Is Sacred”. What’s funny about this, beyond some delightfully vulgar imagery and a breathtakingly accurate pastiche of Oliver, is how accurately it represents Catholic dogma in lyrics such as “You’re a Catholic the moment Dad came”. Pleasingly, the Pythons then display even-handedness with a wickedly accurate piss-take of Protestant self-righteousness as Graham Chapman and Eric Idle play a couple who are “Protestant... and fiercely proud of it”. Chapman explains how Martin Luther’s rebellion against the hegemony of the Catholic Church in 1517 gave him the right to “wear whatever I like on my John Thomas” and thus have sex any time he likes without having children. This fact is much to the amazement of his wife who says wonderingly, “Well we’ve got two children and we’ve had sexual intercourse twice”. Terry Gilliam feels this is one of the best things Python ever did and I think he’s right – the economy and bile of the writing is hugely impressive and Chapman and Idle are on top form.

The Meaning of Life Part II: Growth and Learning

The strength of the material in the last episode continues in this third section which has another classic sketch in which John Cleese’s completely believable and truly appalling headteacher gives his class a practical lesson in sex education. However, while this is the best remembered aspect, the preceding assembly is just as funny; Cleese delivers a series of injunctions regarding not rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant and then off-handedly says, “Oh and by the way, Jenkins, your mother’s died”. Michael Palin also has fun as a chaplain, trembling with unctuous divinity, who hails the almighty with the dubious compliment that “Ooooh, you are so big!” But it’s the sex education scene that is most likely to have you reaching for the rewind button – if not necessarily for the sight of John Cleese taking off his pants. Quite apart from the brilliant concept of teaching sex as if it were a stroke in cricket, the script is packed with quotable lines – “Now then,, sex, sex...”, “Now did I or did I not do vaginal juices?”, “You don’t have to leap straight for the clitoris like a bull at a gate” and my favourite, “We’ll take foreplay as read shall we dear?” Cleese is at his very best and I think this is one of his defining performances – it’s not just the hair, impressive as that is, but the clipped, quasi-Etonian speech that works so well. Just listen to the way he says “har......den” while clutching at his gown as if it was a safety harness. This is all, of course, in very bad taste but it’s also oddly respectable – the fact that the Headmaster’s wife looks so much like a Tory constituency harridan helps a lot.

The Meaning of Life Part III: Fighting Each Other

This section is the first during which doubts about the material begin to set in. The sequence in which Terry Jones’ officer is presented with various idiotic presents by his grateful men during an enemy onslaught on the trenches is mildly amusing at best and it seems oddly overstretched. Obviously a parody of all those British war movies in which John Mills’ upper lip goes into terminal spasm, it’s not offensive enough to be shocking and not witty enough to be funny. This is followed by a lecture from Chapman about not mocking the military which might be funnier if it didn’t remind you of how much funnier Chapman was when he played the Colonel during the first series of the TV show – the one with the recurring catchphrase “Now stop that, that’s silly!” Honour is restored somewhat by an exceptionally silly but very funny rant from Michael Palin as a tough parade ground RSM who manages to lose all his troops by allowing them to leave on the most feeble of pretexts. Then, fortunately, we move back into classic territory with a Zulu Wars sketch that parodies Empire war movies with precision and genuine wit. The plot, a search for the creature that bit off Eric Idle’s leg – “Quite a bite you got there” – is knowingly inane, although not all that much sillier than the stories of real examples of the genre such as “Bohwani Junction”. Again, the team are at their best here, with Graham Chapman’s doctor taking the honours with his advice to Idle – “There’s a lot of it about. Probably a virus. Keep warm, plenty of rest and if you’re playing football, try and favour the other leg.” The resolution to the mystery is hilariously stupid – “A tiger ??? In Africa ???” - and leads us into the middle section of the film called, unsurprisingly, “The Middle of the Film”.

The Middle of the Film

In which Michael Palin, dressed as a woman for reasons which have always escaped me, offers us the irresistible chance to play “Find The Fish” and the film enters the realms of potentially dangerous insanity. I once had the dubious privilege of trying to explain this to someone who had never seen the film and it’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat. However, in summary, Terry Jones is in a tuxedo and has improbably long, spindly arms – similar to Vic Reeves’ impersonation of Lloyd Grossman – while Graham Chapman is resplendent in a Toyah hairstyle and multi-coloured basque. Both parties conduct a dialogue questioning the whereabouts of “the lovely fish” which “went wherever I ... did gooooooo....” Meanwhile, a waiter with the head of an elephant serves cocktails. Although the use of the word acid may be a trifle unwise, this may well be an acid test for how much you love Pythonesque humour. It sends me into hysterics but I’ve been in a cinema where no-one else appeared to be laughing, or indeed joining in with the search.

The Meaning of Life Part IV: Middle Age

This section is a bit of a mixed-bag. I can take or leave Palin and Idle playing an American couple spouting banalities but I wouldn’t like to be without Cleese’s desperately enthusiastic waiter offering subjects for conversation or, more bizarrely, Terry Gilliam dressed up like a combination of Marie Antoinette and Little Bo-Peep. Good dialogue throughout – “I never knew Schopenhauer was a philosopher”, “Oh yeah, he’s the one that begins with an S.” – and some gruesome torture imagery in the Dungeon Room decorations, but this could probably have done with some stringent editing.

The Meaning of Life Part V: Live Organ Transplants

Another acid test for the audience which caused quite a few walkouts when I first saw the film in the cinema. What makes this scene – in which Terry Gilliam’s Jewish Rastafarian is disembowelled by Graham Chapman while John Cleese sparks off a romance with his wife – so interesting is that it doesn’t have any real point except to be disgusting. The central joke – that having a donor card theoretically makes you a target for someone who wants your liver – is a very weak one but the execution is so extreme that it gains a grand guignol quality that is much funnier than the concept. In other words, as Peter Jackson demonstrated in the peerless (and Python influenced) Brain Dead, the more gore, the more laughs. In fact, this isn’t doing anything that Python hadn’t done during their TV days in sketches such as the breathtakingly tasteless sketch in which Chapman suggests to a recently bereaved Cleese that they eat his mother or the wonderful “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days”. It’s surely a sign of the times that, despite this blood-spattered sequence and the later Mr Creosote scene, the BBFC now see fit to give The Meaning of Life nothing more restrictive than a 15 certificate. However, the tone suddenly changes as Eric Idle steps out of the fridge and takes Jones on a trip around the universe while singing “The Galaxy Song”, a superb piece of writing which is almost as informative as Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and considerably more comprehensible. Shortly after this, when Jones has agreed to be the next liver donor, the Crimson Permanent Assurance hijack the film by launching an attack on “The Very Big Corporation Of America”.

.The Meaning of Life Part VI: The Autumn Years

Otherwise known as the “Oh shit, it’s Mr Creosote” scene. I can’t imagine anyone reading this review doesn’t know who Mr Creosote is, but for the uninitiated, he is a very, very fat man who vomits all over a restaurant, eats a gargantuan dinner, is persuaded to top it off with a wafer-thin mint and then explodes. That’s about it, although it’s only fair to mention another brilliant song pastiche by Eric Idle called “The Not Noel Coward Song” which opens the sequence. Otherwise, one’s tolerance for vomit is thoroughly tested here and, once again, it’s only funny because it’s so horribly extreme. There isn’t a single sequence like this in mainstream cinema and, as far as I know, up to 1983 only John Waters ever really made anything in the same league of repulsiveness. I don’t want to sound censorious by the way because I adore this sequence but it’s a classic example of something which probably didn’t seem funny on the page. The execution is everything and the more disgusting it gets, the more laughs it earns. John Cleese takes the acting honours as the ceaselessly polite head waiter, not losing his poise even when treading in Mr Creosote’s vomit bucket. Here, as elsewhere, the special effects are a little rough and ready but always satisfactory and the full body makeup on Terry Jones is quite remarkable.

The Meaning of Life Part VI B: The Meaning of Life

This misleadingly titled section is perhaps most notable for not offering us the meaning of life. Instead, Eric Idle’s waiter from the previous section leads us to the house where he grew up and explains why he chose that profession. This is a bizarre moment because it’s not particularly amusing, despite Idle’s note-perfect impression of Sacha Distel. Funnier is the beginning of the scene where Terry Jones plays a cleaning woman who describes, in verse, her experiences while working in various international cultural centres but ends up with a bucket of sick over her head after revealing her anti-Semitic sympathies.

The Meaning of Life Part VII: Death

A certain sense of weariness pervades the first part of this section. The idea of having a convicted criminal choosing to die by being chased off the edge of a cliff by a squad of topless women in roller-skating helmets is potentially funny, but nothing is done with it. Far, far better is the second part; the epic confrontation between Death and a group of appallingly smug upper class types who have been killed after eating an infected salmon mousse. From the beginning – “Have you come about the hedge” – to Cleese’s increasingly frustrated Grim Reaper telling us about how much he hates people – “Englishmen, you’re all so fucking pompous, none of you have got any balls”, this is inspired stuff. Once the deceased travel to the afterlife, the film is wrapped up with a last musical number called “Christmas In Heaven” which sees Graham Chapman doing a superb impersonation of Barry Manilow amid a chorus of angels wearing plastic tits. There being no more people to offend and/or delight, the film finishes with Michael Palin’s woman from the middle of the film telling us the meaning of life – but it’s not quite as profound as you might have hoped.

I would be the first to admit that the film is patchy and that some scenes don’t work at all. But so much of it is brilliantly funny that when things misfire, it’s just an opportunity to have a breather before the next bout of hysterical laughter. The pacing throughout is generally excellent and it’s certainly Terry Jones’ most impressive piece of direction – slightly more ambitious than Life of Brian and far more imaginative than his interesting but flawed Personal Services which relied too much on the script and Julie Walters for its success. Packed with Pythonesque genius and moments that you will want to watch time and again, The Meaning of Life is a dose of nasty, demented and thoroughly joyous bad taste from beginning to end.

The Disc

Universal issued The Meaning of Life back in 2000 on a barebones disc that looked pretty unimpressive. This new 2-disc Special Edition is a considerable improvement and qualifies as a must-buy DVD.

The film is transferred in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. In most respects, it’s a very good transfer indeed. Plenty of fine detail, a firmness to the image which doesn’t interfere with the deliberate variety of lighting styles in the film, and really magnificent colours throughout. There are some compression artefacts present in places, but not distractingly so, and the image is filmic without being too textured. All in all, I thought this was very pleasing and a vast improvement on the transfer which was present on the original release of the film.

There are three soundtrack options. The original Dolby Stereo soundtrack has been responsibly remixed into DTS 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1 in a manner which is subtle but effective. Dialogue remains largely centred around the front left and right channels but the music score and songs are more expansive and ambient effects (and explosions) are also effectively opened out. The main omission is the lack of use for the subwoofer. I had hoped that Mr Creosote’s fate would have been rather more heavy on the bass than has turned out to be the case. However, overall this is a clear, crisp track. I couldn't hear any significant difference between the Dolby Digital 5.1 and the DTS tracks to be honest. The other option, accessed from the menu is a “Soundtrack For The Lonely”. I won’t spoil this, other than to say that what initially appears to be a little joke turns out to be a whole extra experience in itself if you stay with it throughout the film. This is a lovely little extra that came as a complete surprise.

There are plenty of extra features into which your teeth can be dug and three of them are on the first disc. Along with the aforementioned extra soundtrack, there is an audio commentary from Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. The two men seem to have been recorded separately and their comments are fairly sporadic but they come up with some amusing anecdotes and clearly enjoy watching the film again. Contributions from the other Pythons would have been welcome though, along the lines of the commentary track from The Holy Grail. Another feature on the first disc is a Director’s Cut, which consists of the original film with three deleted scenes interpolated. None of these are essential and the quality of them is noticeably inferior to the rest of the film (intentionally so in the case of “The Adventures of Martin Luther”) but it’s interesting to see the negative effect they have on the overall pacing. Oh, and I almost forgot a brief optional introduction from Eric Idle which raises a smile but not much more.

The majority of the bonus features are on the second disc. Like the first, this has some amusingly Pythonesque menus which are enjoyable to watch in themselves without being quite so long-winded as the ones on the Columbia Holy Grail DVD. The central extra feature is a 50 minute documentary called “The Meaning of the Making of The Meaning of Life” which is excellent and very frank. The Pythons all feature to some extent – Chapman from archive interviews – and there is plenty of bitchy gossip and inside information to be enjoyed. The attitudes of the team towards the film very from disdain – Cleese still dislikes the film, a view which I find baffling – to excitable enthusiasm in the case of Gilliam. There is also some priceless archive footage of Cannes 1983 although sadly not the immortal moment when Terry Jones, before winning the Special Jury Prize, informed the world’s press that he had bribed the judges and then, upon collecting the award, told them that their cash was behind the washbasin in the Gents.

We also get a collection of deleted scenes, including the ones restored in the director’s cut. Two of these have a commentary from Terry Jones. All of them are worth a watch with the oddest being Mr Creosote’s journey to the restaurant. These are all presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, as are the rest of the extras. The other bonus features are relatively minor but still very enjoyable. “Educational Tips” is a witty little satire on English Public School life which has a wonderful turn from Cleese. “Song And Dance” is a brief featurette about the choreography of ‘Christmas In Heaven’ and ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’. “Songs Unsung” features alternative versions of three of the songs, sung by different members of the cast. “Virtual Reunion” is a blue-screen digital ‘reunion’ in which the cast, all filmed separately, attempt to have a reunion. This is quite amusing but very strange. “What Fish Think” speaks for itself, in a way, and “Un Film De John Cleese” is a funny mock-trailer for the film featuring only the bits with Cleese, who does his egomaniac act familiar from the good old days of ISIRTA. “Selling The Meaning of Life” is a comprehensive collection of promotional stuff, including the full trailer, TV spots, priceless British radio spots, the famous “telepathy” spoof trailer and a collection of rejected artwork. Finally, and best of all, there is “Remastering a Masterpiece” which is a wicked spoof on the ins and outs of film restoration, featuring a sporting appearance from James C. Katz and some well achieved visual gags.

DVD-Rom content on the disc includes the full shooting script of the film, lost scenes, songsheets and The Fat Recipes.

English subtitles are included for both the film and, laudably, for all the extra features.

The Meaning of Life is a delight to watch and has dated very well, rather better than you might reasonably expect. If it’s not quite as shocking as it was 21 years ago then that’s probably because the trails it blazed have been so frequently travelled in the intervening years. However, it’s still just as funny as it ever was and maybe even funnier. This Special Edition is a splendid presentation of the film and is an essential purchase for Python fans and anyone else with a sense of humour.

9 out of 10
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
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out of 10

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