Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Liar's Autobiography (2012)

When Monty Python’s Flying Circus took the stage in London earlier this year, they were one member short. Graham Chapman, the hedonist, reformed alcoholic, pipe smoking, qualified medical doctor had passed away from cancer in 1989. Three years before that he had recorded himself readings extracts from his only telling of his life story, “A Liar’s Autobiography”, and it is these that form the basis of the film of the same name. However, the animated visuals that accompany the soundtrack rarely do justice to the words, and the sloppy overall tone soon becomes irritating.

Along the way learn something of his life, growing up in the Midlands with a no-nonsense policeman dad, studying medicine at Cambridge, meeting John Cleese, breaking into the world of television, coming out as an openly gay man, fame with Monty Python, 70s hedonism with rock star pals in LA, and a last few years of sobriety. We also learn a little of his character, his interest in and knowledge of science and medicine making a perfect contradictory counterpoint to his surreal outlook on life and hedonistic, staggeringly unhealthy lifestyle.

However, it soon becomes apparent that we are learning all of this purely from listening to Chapman talk, with the visuals at best adding nothing, and worst becoming distracting and grating. This is not to say that individual bits are not without merit, such as an astonishing sequence involving fighter pilots becoming overwhelmed with lust for each other, which plays like something from a William Burroughs novel. Far from being gratuitous, the scene links together several strands of Chapman's character and past, such as growing up during, World War Two, reading the stiff upper lip exploits of fictional hero fighter pilot Biggles, his sexuality, and his rugged macho image and interests, such as rugby, and mountain climbing. The credits list over a dozen different animation studios and while this may have been an attempt to capture the anarchy and randomness that Chapman brought to his work, the combined result feels like a tiresome mess.

Sadly having four of the five remaining Pythons (Eric Idle is the only one not involved) to voice the characters in the life of Chapman adds little to the film. Instead of creating characters, they mostly sound like they are halfheartedly reading lines of a piece of paper that has just been handed to them, while the use of Cameron Diaz as the voice of Sigmund Freud is just pointless stunt casting

So, what is the point of this film? Fair enough, the directors did not want to do a straightforward biography, and certainly, Chapman did not with his book. The stories may be largely untrue, but you can still learn plenty about people from tall tales. Beyond a brief mention of watching Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller perform Beyond the Fringe on television, the film does not explore any of the roots of Chapman's comedy, such as BBC Radio comedy like The Goon Show. There is also little mention of his long-term partner David Sherlock, who stuck with him through the darkest days of boozing, right through to the end of Chapman’s life. Python fans will not learn anything new, and non-fans just will not learn anything much.