Liar’s Autobiography, A: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (2012)

Starring the Voices of: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland, Philip Bulcock, Cameron Diaz, Justin McDonald, Stephen Fry.

Director: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett
Rating: R (for strong and crude sexual content including graphic animated sequences, language and some violent images..)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Bill and Ben Productions, Brainstorm Media, and EPIX.

Written by: Graham Chapman and David Sherlock, adapted posthumously from Chapman’s book, “A Liar’s Autobiography – Volume VI”.
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(out of 5 stars)

I am still to this day a huge fan of Monty Python.  The irreverent, ground-breaking, and often imitated comedy troupe, who revolutionized sketch comedy and trainwreck television in the United Kingdom, and later the world, have given me massive lines of dialogue to quote and countless tears of laughter to shed.  Upon hearing that a documentary was being made from Graham Chapman’s “Liar’s Autobiography- Volume VI”, Chapman’s own fictionalized account of his life, I was excited.  Understanding that Chapman’s story would be told in various different animated styles, I was compelled to see the tribute that the Python folks would pay for their fallen collaborator.

Graham Chapman passed away from cancer in October 1989 and three years prior to his death, Chapman recorded an audio book of his “autobiography”.  In 2011, directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett took those recordings and created a wildly ambitious animated feature film presentation of the wild and bizarre stories Chapman documented in his “memoirs.”

Chances are you have never seen or heard anything like this.

You see, A Liar’s Autobiography… is intended to be false, but research shows that Chapman is not completely fibbing on everything he did in his life.  He freely addresses how the formation of Monty Python, at least in terms of his involvement with the group came to pass, he is forthright and honest about his reckless, drug-and-alcohol infused lifestyle, and his quite prolific sexual exploits with men and women alike.  Chapman hid his addictions rather well during the heyday of Monty Python’s fame, but his eventual coming out publicly  in the early 1970s was groundbreaking.  At a time when homosexuality was not discussed in the media, he never hid his 23-year relationship with writer and Python contributor David Sherlock.

Chapman’s story is fascinating, but in the cinematic version of A Liar’s Autobiography… the truth and the outrageous and fantastical lies Chapman tells are buried beneath a dizzying mix of 14 different and distinctive animation styles.  When you think you know where the story is going, it dips and darts, shifting its entire look, tone, and feel into something completely different.  The constant themes here are Chapman’s drunken and sexual escapades and those are well documented in scene after scene.  But even for a fairly well studied Python fan, A Liar’s Autobiography… is far too much to process.

Sorting through what is real and what is not serves as the first obstacle.  Then, trying to decipher why the animated segments are presented in the way they are and whether those depictions have any bearing on the story being shared, will simply confound you.  Despite hearing the familiar voices of John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, and other guest voices such as Stephen Fry and Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud, of all things, A Liar’s Autobiography… never invites you in.  Rather than seeing the personality behind the madness and the soul behind the entertainer, we get 80-plus minutes of subterfuge, distractions, arrogance, pretentiousness, and unnecessary aggravation.

When we see fleeting and all too brief archival footage of Chapman’s early days with John Cleese and the rare Monty Python sketch or featurette, you cannot help but wonder if the wildly divergent paths in telling this tale could not be connected better.  Brief as they are, those moments are wonderful as is John Cleese’s eulogy at Chapman’s funeral, which speaks to the bond Cleese and the rest of Monty Python shared with the only member of the ensemble to no longer be alive.  As Cleese gently disparages Chapman to the laughter and delight of those in attendance, you can envision Chapman applauding for the afterlife.

I found A Liar’s Autobiography… to be a tiresome chore to get through.  If only the directors had been able to capture the chemistry and brothers-in-arms kinship the Python clan had for one another, through all of these ramblings and animated rabbit holes we must travel down, we could forgive the craziness and scattershot approach to telling Chapman’s half-true/half-exaggerated life story.

With what is likely one of, if not the final Monty Python project, as Python member Eric Idle notably declined to take part in the film, A Liar’s Autobiography… is a major disappointment.  Monty Python always seemed to know when enough was enough, capping their series run at 4 seasons and 45 episodes and disbanding after just three feature length films.  The tributes and conventional documentaries notwithstanding, they have preserved their name and legacy impressively.  Here, they resemble performers unable to walk off the stage, overstaying their welcome, and bombing on a final gag.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Fans of Monty Python will be quite excited to see the film.
  • Those who like avant-garde, surreal, and challenging films, especially something that features 14 different animation styles within one 85 minute film will be up for the challenge.
  • Definitely not for kids, the film is unabashedly adult with lots of dry wit and bizarre sequences that clearly make it unlike any other film you have likely come across.
NO
  • What a mess.  For most people, this will be tiresome and next to impossible to understand and/or follow.  The artistry is evident, the execution and whole approach is baffling.
  • The moments that hit you emotionally are suffocated in pretension and drowned out with all of the other insanity happening.  Clearly having this so detached could not have been the idea.
  • Only devout Python fans will try this. Watch classic episodes of the series or their three classic satirical films.  That will give you proper appreciation for Chapman and his cohorts iconic and gamechanging talents.
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