Review: A Liar’s Autobiography
More often than not, the actual experience of growing older is not accruing more responsibilities, respect, or knowledge, but being let down by the things that you love the most. And, for those adults whose tastes skew towards the far too silly, such disappointments are especially bitter when dealing with the lackluster partial reunion of a certain legendary British sketch-comedy troupe. Directors Bill Jones (son of Terry Jones), Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett have paired recordings of long-deceased Monty Python member Graham Chapman reading his wry, pseudo-memoir A Liar’s Autobiography with the work of 14 different animation studios. As the lead of the Python’s two narrative-driven films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian) and as someone who led a fascinating and incredibly difficult life (he struggled with alcoholism and came out of the closet long before anyone substantially more famous did), Chapman would seem ripe as a subject, especially with such potentially inventive presentation.
However, the experience of A Liar’s Autobiography is ultimately deflating instead of celebratory. Large portions of the original text were eschewed in favor of new, clumsy sight gags (including the Pythons represented as a group of poo-throwing monkeys), a painfully bad alcohol detox sequence, and an out-of-place music video of “Sit on My Face.” Worse still, most of the animation is functionally illustrative rather than visually interesting or surprising. Chapman’s account of dull, middle-class family vacations to Scarborough as a teenager—which, like the book, is intermittently interrupted by absurdist flights of fancy whenever it draws a bit too close to anything resembling a standard celebrity autobiography—loses its subversive teeth when realized with Superfad Studio’s puffy half-Pixar, half–Fernando Botero CGI, and Sherbet’s Art Clokey–like felt puppets.
Chapman’s strongest contributions to Python in terms of performance and presence lay in his ability to channel and lampoon bourgeois self-important sternness. (Even his multiple turns as a barking police officer who orders the other performers to end the sketch are essential.) Yet the hackneyed line readings by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who voice Chapman’s tender but dotty parents, are far inferior to Chapman’s original interpretations. Though the project itself is ambitious, the more daring and sound decision would have been to keep more or even all of Chapman’s original tracks.
More importantly, such a decision would have at least ensured more cohesiveness. The liberties that Jones, Simpson, and Timlett take with the book’s structure, especially their omissions of entire sections, severely impede understanding of Chapman’s life as a whole as well as the tone within individual vignettes. Bereft of a link between “sketches,” it’s hard to summon the energy to follow along. The unnecessary, under-utilized 3D and vintage footage inserts don’t help either. A more appreciative and enjoyable 83 minutes can be spent revisiting three-and-a-half episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or just listening to A Liar’s Autobiography as an audiobook.