The Pythons' Gonzo Gospel

By STEPHEN SCHIFF  |  October 5, 2009

The mirth increases when these gentlemen and their cohorts--Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones (the director) and Terry Gilliam (who does their raffish animation)--stuff their stereotypical British housewives and bobbies and pub crawlers into togas and sandals. Still, that's not enough to keep a feature-length comedy moving. Life of Brian is mostly a chase, a genre better left to those diminutive Americans, who learned how to do it back when the sight gag was the only gag in town. We're used to such grace and invention from our Keatons and Chaplins and even from our Bugs Bunnies and Road Runners that the ragged Python chases seem pathetic. Boring, too, especially since the movie was photographed with a palette of mud-browns. Mud-brown buildings sit on the mud-brown mud; even the air looks as though it might benefit from an application of Windex.

And though the Pythons generally are funnier when they pursue verbal humor, their dialogue here is flat. There's a sameness about it all; sooner or later, almost every scene drifts into the familiar Python hairsplitting and overqualifying. Examples abound. While scrawling anti-Roman graffiti (in Latin, yet) on Pilate's wall, Brian is grabbed by an enormous centurion, who takes him to task not for defacing the palace but for not knowing his declensions. A revolutionary pep talk ends in disarray when the leader announces that "There is not one of us here who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans," only to hear a voice in the back, protesting, "Well, one." "Oh yeah," the leader admits. "There is one. But otherwise, we're solid!"

This sort of thing amuses for a while, but soon the redundancy irritates. Where are the flights of brilliance that enlivened the Python TV shows? Where are the slightly daft situations that pinwheel into surrealistic lunacy, the jokes that work on three or four levels at once and keep expanding even then? Life of Brian is the Pythons' most sustained, coherent work yet--which is to say it has a plot--and that's exactly what's wrong with it. The exigencies of narrative hem the lads in. They can't veer off into other centuries, other worlds, into jokes about plumbing or TV or the Queen. Python humor is at its best when it's scattershot, when it scribbles all over our expectations. Here, the boys hew to the linear, and over the course of the film we can sense the energy draining. Worse, they have nothing to replace their usual nuttiness with. A sustained, linear comic plot needs an interesting protagonist, and tension, and emotion. Poor Brian can provide none of these; he's been painted mud-brown along with everything else.

In only one scene do the Pythons really cut loose. Trapped by the centurions, Brian leaps off a high tower to an almost certain death, when suddenly, from out of nowhere, a beat-up spaceship flies into view, scoops Brian up in midair, and whisks him off to a mad, bargain-basement Star War. His captors are a pair of enormous eyeballs mounted on squishy blue hands. They stare and they stare, and so do we; lofted on a geyser of comic energy, we feel utterly incredulous. And though Brian is let down a few seconds later exactly where he would have landed anyway--and with him the film--this spaceship sequence gave me a comic high that was like nothing I've felt in months of moviegoing. For a few seconds, I became a true believer, a born-again Python fan.

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