Friday, June 18, 2010

Monty Python's Life of Brian

After watching this movie again, it struck me how funny it is that Monty Python's Life of Brian is not heretical. When you hear the premise, you naturally assume it is going to be offensive; it tells the story of Brian, who --- while born on the same day as Jesus (so remember his birthday this year!) --- is mistaken for the messiah, but wants nothing to do with it.  The film is actually very nice to Jesus, instead making fun of Biblical movies and organized religion.  Still, the subject matter was controversial enough for the original production company to back out only days before production began.  Luckily, George Harrison opted to nearly bankrupt himself to produce the film, just because it sounded like the only way he would get to see the movie.  Just further proof that the Beatles were awesome.

Normally, I would write a brief plot synopsis and note who played who in the movie, but it's not terribly useful with Monty Python movies.  Even assuming that the plot needs explaining (Brian, the not-messiah, follows a similar story arc to Jesus), what am I going to tell you?  That I found Graham Chapman convincing as Brian, but not as Biggus Dickus?  Or that I liked the proto-feminism of Eric Idle in his Stan/Loretta role?  No, I think I'll pass on all that.  Let me just say that this is the most linear plot of any Python movie, and the one that has the least amount of where-the-hell-did-that-come-from randomness.  That might sound odd, considering that this is a Biblical parody that has an alien UFO, but it is the truth.  Also, this movie had their best production values, thanks largely to their recycling of sets from Jesus of Nazareth.

This movie is notable for the best Python acting to date.  Graham Chapman, an alcoholic, actually stopped drinking for his role as the title character, which helped his comedic timing immeasurably.  While Chapman certainly was not a great actor, he was the most honest actor in the group and (in my humble opinion) also the group's best straight man.  That is not to say that John Cleese is anything but brilliant here (I suspect he handled a lot of the writing), but those two seemed to have the biggest personalities in Monty Python and I think the movie was better served with Chapman playing the relatively straight role and Cleese doing whatever madness popped into his head.  This is one of Eric Idle's better movies, too, with several memorable characters, not the least of whom is the one that sings "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" while crucified at the end of the film.  Michael Palin is also good, as usual, and both Terry Gilliam (who had shockingly little to animate in this movie) and Terry Jones have their moments, too.  As usual, with the Pythons playing multiple roles of either gender, there are precious few non-Python actors, with only Sue Jones-Davies deserving recognition for her unexpected (and a bit uncomfortable) full frontal nudity scene.

Beyond that, the only important question is whether this movie is funny or not.  Simply put, the answer is "yes, very."  This movie appeals to the traditional Python fanatic, the casual dabbler in English wit, and even clueless fans of broad American humor.  After all, just because the movie is pretty smart doesn't mean that the jokes aren't really stupid.  If you have never seen this movie, I would categorize the humor as such:
  • Funnier than most Mel Brooks movies (particularly History of the World, Part 1)
  • Less random than Family Guy
  • Better than a Lisa or Marge episode of The Simpsons
  • Less depressing than Judd Apataw movies
  • Smarter than Adam Sandler movies, but not as smart as his producers
  • Slightly less funny than National Treasure
Comedies don't usually age well, but there is something timeless about Monty Python's silliness that shows us just how funny movies can be.  And, when thinking about this film, please bear in mind that Brian is not the messiah; he is a very naughty boy.

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