The Meaning of Life makes the ideal swan song for legendary comedy troupe Monty Python. And that’s not the same thing as saying it’s perfect. It essentially replicates the sketch-style comedy of their television show, covering the Seven Ages of Man in an uproarious send up of God, religion and the profound questions that never seem to have a definitive answer. This marks a break from their shaggy-dog-plot approach to The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, which presumed to tell a coherent story no matter how many ridiculous detours they took in the meantime. The Meaning of Life got them back to their roots in grand fashion… and that includes some glaring weaknesses along with their undiminished strengths. Hit the jump for the full review.
And make no mistake: this movie carries a good half-dozen of the funniest things they’ve ever done, topped by a musical takedown of the Catholic Church that still sends us godless heathens into snickers. Other high points include an obese restaurateur who literally eats until he bursts, an exasperated Angel of Death trying to gather the souls of a clueless dinner party, and an impromptu song and dance about the vastness of the universe… delivered as a means of on-the-spot organ theft. All of them display the same high-brow absurdity that made the Pythons’ name, combining old-fashioned pratfalls (and the greatest body-humor gag of all time) with a lot of very sophisticated notions about the tragic ridiculousness of the human comedy. Wrap it all in the mischief of true iconoclasts, and they become very hard to resist.
The structure allows the boys to take excellent advantage of the tricks that made the TV show work so well. If you have half of a sketch of good material, but not a whole one, don’t stretch it: just throw in some Terry Gilliam animation and move on to the next idea! The Meaning of Life embraces that ethos completely, to the point of sending an otherwise unrelated short in to shut down a sketch that isn’t working. The format of the different stages of life fits that kind of hummingbird attention spans perfectly; they don’t have to worry about extended stories, recurring characters or anything that might get in the way of the he-ha.
When it works, it’s a thing of beauty. The only trouble is, it doesn’t always work. Every brilliant sketch is matched by another one that just goes nowhere, starting with the opener about a woman giving birth and peppered all too often throughout the running time. The troupe seems to be aware of it, and move along as quickly as possible once it’s apparent that things aren’t working. In this sense, The Meaning of Life has an edge over its movie predecessors, which sometimes had to stick to lame bits in order to keep the plot shambling along. Here, it’s all fire and forget… but when that fire strikes, it’s amazing.
It was also the last time that the principal members of the troupe appeared onscreen together. (Graham Chapman died seven years later.) They’ve done some great work in the interim – including A Fish Called Wanda – but it’s never been quite the same since the curtain came down on this one. That lends The Meaning of Life some unexpected poignancy, as well as being the last, best chance to enjoy these comic geniuses at their best. That is comes with a fair helping of their less-than-best shouldn’t deter you in the least. We always rolled the dice a little bit with the Pythons, a risk that became an integral part of their anarchic joy. The Meaning of Life reminds us that they went out on their own terms, and absolutely no one else’s.
Sadly, for a “30th anniversary special,” the new Blu-ray is a lot less magical than you’d expect. Image and sound quality are far from acceptable, with serious grain in the image and a dull audio track that can’t keep up with the standard we expect from a notable film like this. That doesn’t matter too much as far as the gags themselves go, but it’s still a let-down. All of the bonus features from the DVD have been ported over, along with a pair of new extras: a contemporary sit-down with the five surviving members of the troupe, and a sing-along version of the film that pretty much does what you’d expect.