Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.
Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.
John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.
Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.
Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.
That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.
Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).
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