In the early 1980s, The Meaning of Life brought all the loyal Pythons back together, sharing writing responsibilities as they returned to their much loved sketch show format, with Terry Jones directing and John Goldstone producing. With roles ranging from The Grim Reaper to the legendary Mr. Creosote, the Python troupe first left audiences in stitches in 1983 with iconic scenes such as "The Miracle of Birth," "Live Organ Transplants" and the outrageous "The Autumn Years."
The 1960s have been well documented as a decade of great change in a number of areas, including entertainment. Bob Dylan and the Beatles led the way in music. Films like 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Easy Rider' ushered in a New Hollywood. When it comes to television, there might not be a more influential series than the sketch-comedy show created by the six-man British comedy troupe Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin), which debuted on October 5, 1969 on the BBC and eventually made its way to North America.
Their brand of humor combined highbrow and lowbrow, could be absurd and surreal, and many times played with the very format by which it was being delivered. During the '70s, they became the Kings of All Media, before Howard Stern gave himself the title, achieving success with films, albums, books, and live performances. Their last project as a group turned out to be 1983's 'Monty's Python's The Meaning of Life', due in part to the fact that Chapman died from cancer on October 4, 1989.
Because they could find no way to include the sequence within the film, 'The Meaning of Life' opens with Terry Gilliam's live-action short, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance.” Old men work at adding machines in unison like slaves rowing a boat. They revolt and take over the building they are in. Through effects and model work reminiscent of Gilliam's 'Time Bandits', which came out before, and 'Brazil', which came out after, the building heads towards corporate headquarters like a ship setting sail on the high seas. Running for 16 minutes, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” is filled with action and laughs, but could have been just as successful if made a little shorter.
The feature presentation then begins with what is essentially a bunch of sketches presented together under the guise that they explore the meaning of life, though that notion is a bit of a stretch since many don't. Exploring different stages of life is a more accurate description. While they have some very funny pieces, without a story linking them together like 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' and 'Monty Python's Life of Brian', the material that doesn't work as well stands out since there's not even the excuse of including them to move the plot along.
The film has some classic bits that are as good as anything Monty Python has done. Palin plays a Roman Catholic who has lost his job so he decides he has to sell his children. While trying to explain why he had so many, he sings "Every Sperm is Sacred," which expands into a musical sequence that looks like it came from 'Oliver!' Chapman plays a Protestant neighbor and in an impressive delivery informs his wife (Idle) their religion is better because he can wear condoms. Sex continues to offer great opportunity for laughs when Cleese plays an overly stern teacher discussing with his young students ways to activate the vaginal juices and demonstrating intercourse with his wife (Patricia Quinn, well known as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show').
The body plays a central role in two other noteworthy sketches that aren't for the squeamish. Gilliam really sells the experience of being a donor of a live organ transplant. Jones plays the gluttonous Mr. Creosote, who won’t let a small matter like intense projectile vomiting stop him from enjoying a meal in what may be the most memorable segment of the film.
The sketches that didn't work as well have similar issues in that they meander far too long and don’t have much payoff. Idle and Palin play an American couple eating Hawaiian food in a medieval dungeon themed restaurant. Their “philosophical” discussion is a bit strange. They also play a couple of men during the Anglo-Zulu War trying to explain why they are wearing a tiger suit and who may have stolen someone's leg. Idle plays a waiter who offers his philosophy of life after a long journey out to his mother's home and then insults the audience for not seeming to care. The oddest bit of all is a segment where the audience is supposed to find a fish in the scene. Audience members yell out as Jones plays a man with very long arms, Chapman is bizarrely dressed, and someone has on an elephant mask. The fish in the movie liked it, but it was just bizarre rather than being funny.
Although some sketches may have needed some revising or cutting, as a whole 'The Meaning of Life' is a very good movie for Monty Python to have gone out on. Thirty years later, the laughs it offers haven't diminished.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue keepcase and comes with an Ultraviolet digital copy. The disc loads straight to the standard Universal menu.
The colors come through in strong hues as seen in the titles for the different features and opening credits. “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” uses a lot of earth tones and reveals good shadow delineation. Also during this segment, the fine details in the textures of the buildings and models can be seen. Blacks sometimes crush as seen during the Protestant scene.
Film grain is noticeable and becomes more pervasive against the dark clouds when the Grim Reaper is seen standing in a field outside a house. During "The Miracle of Birth" as the patient is quickly wheeled down the hospital hallway, dirt and black specks are evident. Otherwise, the film looks clean.
There is one major issue with the focus. As seen during the "CPA" and "where's the fish?" segments, objects on the outer areas of the frame lose sharpness and even slightly distort. It appears like a lens issue from the source, but is disappointing to see.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but a mono track may have been just as satisfying. During the "CPA", the dialogue sounds like it's too low, especially when the effects and score kick in and fill the surrounds. The subwoofer rumbles as the building moves and offers support to the blasts of the filing-cabinet cannons.
The front center channel gets most of the work in this dialogue-heavy track. When Palin transitions from speaking to singing "Every Sperm is Sacred", it sounds like he's singing in a can. Also, when it starts, the music mainly comes out the front speaker and as the song progresses the music fills into the surrounds. Many of the other songs sound a bit flat in comparison to the dialogue as well. The rears perk up during the war scenes and the score gets louder when the dinner party approaches heaven.
These extras were previously included on the 20th Anniversary DVD.
Some comedy teams and filmmakers stay around too long, but 'The Meaning of Life' finds Monty Python going out on a high note. It offers a lot of laughs, and the disc offers a lot of extras to further explore the group and the film. This is highly recommended.