The Pythons' Gonzo Gospel

By STEPHEN SCHIFF  |  October 5, 2009

Through this mayhem wanders one "Brian, called Brian" (Graham Chapman) an ordinary schmo born in Bethlehem a few doors down from Jesus--close enough, in fact, to be mistaken for Him, momentarily, by the Three Wise Men, who had not yet noticed the sublime light issuing from the manger up the street. The movie follows this hapless boob through a short but remarkably eventful life, a life spent mostly on the run, first from Roman centurions who suspect him of complicity in an anti-Pilate plot, and later from followers who are certain he's the Messiah. As you might expect, it all culminates in the jolliest crucifixion imaginable, with deranged Pythons grinning like chorines from their crosses and singing a dotty music-hall number about looking on "The Bright Side of Life."

~~~

Life of Brian has been condemned as "blasphemous" by all sorts of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups, even though its barbs are directed not against Jesus but against the mortals He walked among. I rather wish the film were more blasphemous: riskier, more biting--something. Like so much of the troupe's work, this movie sounds a lot funnier than it is. Most of the humor lies in the absurdity of each episode's premise, and so the big laugh comes as soon as the scene begins, when we figure out what's going on. The rest is embellishment, variations on the theme. Even the punch lines are anticlimactic. Often, of course, we laugh anyway, because the Pythons are such polished comic actors that they can make anything seem funny--including their very Englishness. When they hoist an eyebrow and, with a look of withering indignation, call someone a "silly sod," we're amused not by the wit--what wit?--but by the strangeness of the British, whose curses seem prissy to us and whose rage is balanced by a decorum that strikes us as hilariously incongruous. Small wonder that the Python troupe are more popular in the US than in their mother country--we never get this sort of thing at home.

From Chaplin and Keaton to Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, our comic actors have generally been diminutive (or else risibly portly) men, easily overwhelmed by their physical betters, and always on the run from them. That's why someone like the Python's John Cleese, who plays revolutionary leaders and nasty centurions in Life of Brian, strikes us as so exotic. A hulking brute with a massive forehead and jutting jaw, Cleese looks every inch the surly jock. Yet he's always surprising us with his fussiness and timidity. One minute he narrows his eyes and sets his mouth--all military ferocity--and the next he's a puckering prig, revolted by life's ickiness.

Michael Palin, who must be forgiven his participation in 1977's Jabberwocky, is another fine figure of a man. From a distance, he vaguely resembles Dana Andrews: craggy features, muscular shoulders, resolute posture, just the kind of guy you'd be glad to have on your side if you were establishing a beachhead somewhere, or parachuting into enemy territory. And then, before your eyes, his face goes daffy. The eyes bug, the mouth snakes and curls, and the nose suddenly looks as though it might honk like a bicycle horn if you squeezed it.

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