In 1983, actor and Monty Python alum Graham Chapman recorded an audiobook version of his “A Liar’s Autobiography.” Directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett have taken those recordings and married them to a series of animated segments to tell a version of the life of Chapman, who died of throat cancer in 1989, at age 48.
This is an ambitious and promising set-up, and makes the resulting film all the more disappointing and frustrating. Not a straightforward biography in any way, the film is structured as a loosely connected series of episodes and digressions based on Chapman’s life, each animated in a distinctly different style (fourteen different animations studios were employed). As a man who spent much effort on deliberate, humorous misdirection about his own life, it’s probably safe to say Chapman would have appreciated the sometimes surreal twister of fact and fiction here. But living it and watching it are two different things.
Visually, the film is uneven but occasionally very striking. There is a strong segment of a World War II air battle, and a vivid sequence in pulsating reds, yellows and oranges showing the pains of drying out from the alcoholism that was threatening to kill Chapman. I enjoyed the low-tech charm of the cricket segment. But there are other sequences, some graphically sexual in nature, that seem protracted at best and lame or incomprehensible at worst. A spot-the-penises drinking game would kill a case of beer in no time.
And for a movie about a beloved comedic talent, “A Liar’s Autobiography” is a parched desert of laughs, littered with misjudged outrageousness and a boorish obviousness that seems seriously at odds with its subject’s own skills. Yes, he had lots and lots of sex, we get it already, stop with the whimsical music and the aren’t-we-naughty hammering (so to speak).
Tone-deaf attempts at capturing the style and feel of the Flying Circus are an unfortunate choice, serving only to make you appreciate the originals even more. Fans will recognize bits and pieces from some famous Python sketches, but in a distorted form that neuters the wit that made Chapman’s writing and performances so memorable. There is a woeful extended treatment of the “Sit On My Face” song, not exactly a paragon of subtlety to begin with, and here turned into a multi-styled musical production number finishing with a nod to “Every Sperm Is Sacred” from “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.” Minus the social commentary that made the original so pointed, this comes across as just indulgent.
Along with Chapman’s own voice, all of his fellow Python alums contribute voices, and other guests pop in for a sketch or two, including Stephen Fry and Cameron Diaz, who contributes a truly terrible Sigmund Freud impersonation. Infrequent clips of the actual Chapman’s interviews and performances provide some small relief, and a more palpable sense of the man himself.
The film ends on the most telling note, with footage of John Cleese’s black-comic eulogy at Chapman’s funeral. The impact of the “freeloading bastard” comes more into focus in those few moments than in all the previous footage combined.
“A Liar’s Autobiography” is presented in 16:9 widescreen format. The variety of animation styles is well served by the digital transfer, especially the wilder colors of the surreal segments. There are no subtitles.
The audio track has two options—English 5.1 Dolby or 2.0 Stereo. The painstakingly assembled audio works very well, with detail to the eccentric voice-overs and attention to the treble/bass mix. There are no language options.
- Anatomy of a Liar: an interesting 45-minute feature that serves as a more factual companion piece to the feature, including rare home movies and interviews with figures notably missing in the feature such as Chapman’s brother, and his long-time partner. Especially interesting is the ending segment about the cancer from his long-time pipe smoking.
- Making of the Sound Design—a brief interview with the film’s sound designer and Python collaborator Andre Jacquemin
- Bisons Balls—the filmmakers debate the size of animated bison testicles. Hooray for cinema!
- Comic Con—footage of the dirctors promotional visit to the New York Comic-Con
- Making-of with the animators—interesting short about the various techniques employed by the animators for their segments
- Voice-over sessions with Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin
Truly disappointing, the ambitious “A Liar’s Autobiography” falls flat in almost every way, despite some vivid animated sequences and occasional insight. Its subject deserves better.