Life of Brian operates most significantly on two levels. The first level is the intellectual one, where the audience is invited to anticipate if and how the film will juxtapose Graham Chapman (he’s the Brian whose life the film concerns) against Jesus. Brian is the kid down the block who just never impressed quite so much.
How Life of Brian negotiates Jewish humor is a different level entirely and not one I’m knowledgable enough about to discuss.
So there are those two levels, but then there’s the third salient level of interaction for Brian. The one with the dumb jokes. The easy gags. Monty Python knows how to pace those jokes out, where to place them not as the final punchline (though occasionally penultimate) but to propel the scenes. Even though Brian is slow, it’s frantically moving at all times. Julian Doyle’s editing is a big deal. This pace, the gorgeous location shooting, the Monty Python guys playing multiple roles each–Doyle has to do everything just right. He never lets the film be in on the joke. He carries through the film’s visual agreements.
Because Brian is a filmed on location Bible epic. The production values are amazing. Director Jones manages to be enthusiastic about the sets but never showy. Peter Biziou’s photography is phenomenal. Brian’s a technical marvel.
It’s also hilarious. The script, the performances, just great. I’m a John Cleese fan so I’m always hoping he’ll give the best performance of a Python, but he doesn’t in Brian. Chapman’s awesome in the lead. He’s not exactly a calm in the center of the comedic storm, he’s just blissfully unaware. Chapman sells that bliss.
Jones–as an actor–is great. Michael Palin’s got a good bit as Pilate. But my favorite is Eric Idle. He gets a lot of the dumb jokes and he makes them work.
There’s excellent supporting performances from everyone, with Sue Jones-Davies (as Judas’s sister and Chapman’s love interest) standing out. Spike Milligan’s hilarious too.
So, Life of Brian. It’s great. I wish I’d seen it sooner. And now I need to go because I’m trying to come up with a painful pun to exit on.
Directed by Terry Jones; starring and written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Julian Doyle; music by Geoffrey Burgon; production designer, Gilliam; produced by John Goldstone; released by Orion Pictures.
Also starring Kenneth Colley (Jesus), Sue Jones-Davies (Judith), Terence Bayler (Gregory), Carol Cleveland (Mrs. Gregory) and Spike Milligan (Spike).