The late Graham Chapman, one-sixth of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, was a premium-grade bullshitter. The so-called ‘silliest Python’ once told a BBC reporter on the set of the Holy Grail that he was an extra (he was, of course, the lead actor). And thus it was for his 1980 autobiography, appropriately titled A Liar’s Autobiography, which shamelessly laid no claim to honesty or truthfulness, a stake further bolstered by the subtitle: The Untrue Story. Few narrators are quite so unreliable, and so that same spirit of playful contrarianism is invoked in this animated adaptation of said autobiography.
All the original Pythons (except Eric Idle) lend their voices, including, uniquely, Chapman himself, having made several recordings of the book before his death in 1989. A Liar’s Autobiography is therefore significant in the Python oeuvre as being the first time he has “worked” with the rest of the group (Idle notwithstanding) in over twenty years. Chapman’s voice, with that plummy Cambridge enunciation, lends proceedings the weight of a certain shaky authenticity, even as its author defiantly shirks such fripperies as facts. To assuage any doubt as to the seriousness of proceedings, Chapman begins with an typically silly account of his birth, claiming his parents were “were expecting a heterosexual black Jew with several rather amusing birth deformities as they needed the problems.”
Recruiting fourteen separate animation studios for the project, the directing team of Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett essentially cobble together a series of vignettes to tell this spurious life story. Animation is often a useful tool for depicting the many surreal flights of fancy – a segment set in space works particularly well – but on the whole, it’s structurally loose and haphazard. The switch between animation styles and techniques, so frequently and without warning, can be disorientating, and difficult to get a purchase on. Just when you settle into a computer-generated sequence of Second World War fighter pilots, you are quickly thrust away into a dark, hand-painted depiction of alcoholism and drugs.
As the Pythons themselves discovered with sketch-based films like 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different and The Meaning of Life (1983), such an incoherent approach is doomed to fail, and Chapman’s original comic thrust is lost in the tangle. Python fans, who have clamoured for any sort of reunion since the group effectively disbanded upon Chapman’s death, will no doubt be thrilled to see so many of their heroes on-screen again, and may well be cheered by the prevailing essence of silliness that made the Pythons great. But even the super-fans would be forced to admit that A Liar’s Autobiography never quite scales the heights of comedy that its subject accomplished.
Crucially, we don’t go away learning any more about Graham Chapman, the man. Rather than being left with a clearer picture – however silly – A Liar’s Autobiography fosters a messy, colourful memory in your mind: surreal, psychedelic, sometimes funny, but frustratingly empty beneath the surface, a disappointingly inadequate tribute to a great comedian.