IT WAS A MARRIAGE of artist and theme with great potential for blasphemous offspring--Monty Python's Flying Circus dive-bombs the New Testament. Sort of like Jesus Christ Superstar to the tune of "I'm a Lumberjack"--
I'm a Savior and I'm OK
I sleep all night and I heal all day.
Visions of Christ silly-walking across the Sea of Galilee filled the minds of the troupe's fans, starved for new material ever since the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975.
For the first five minutes, Monty Python's Life of Brian actually meets the unreasonable expectations of fans. The film opens with suitably celestial music as the star of Bethlehem scoots in from the galactic end-zone. Three camels with robed riders poke their way across a sea of sand-dunes, towards a shabby huddle of huts and mangers. It could all be right out of Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" down to the last sunbeam.
The wise men wander into a manger, but it's the wrong one--no haloed Virgin Mary greets them in the straw; Terry Jones's familiar crone voice--a Python staple from "Penguin on the Telly" on down--bursts any reverential bubble, and we're back in the begrimed world of most Monty Python comedies.
This alternation of the mock-epic and the earthy proved an ideal technique in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Graham Chapman's snooty King Arthur deserved to have shit flung upon him. In Jabberwocky, a 1976 bomb starring two Python members, the mock-epic dropped out entirely and left the cast wallowing in a cesspool of gore and unbearable toilet humor. Life of Brian returns to the successful formula of Holy Grail, spoofing a genre of film and its directorial cliches with both skillful imitation and derision.
You'd think the six members of Monty Python would find the format of a full-length movie inimical to their comic ideal. After all, they chafed under the minimal requirements of a half-hour television spot, shuffling the credits, titles, and skits in a restless assault on any prescribed structure for their product.
Holy Grail worked largely because they blithely ignored traditional dicta of screenwriting and approached the movie as a two-hour set of manageable episodes. Life Of Brian does a more creditable job as a "full length feature presentation," as the studios call it, but its sanity actually works against it. The risks Monty Python used to take with its narrative line--bouncing characters from film to animation, for example--would fail as often as they succeeded, but they were a trademark, often responsible for the funniest moments.
Life of Brian remains disappointingly sober.
It's as though someone placed a tape recorder under director Terry Jones' pillow that repeated over and over, while he slept, "I will NOT do anything too outrageous." Except for a brief sequence in which an animated spaceship picks up Graham Chapman in the middle of a 100-yard plunge, whisks him into a brief take-off on Star Wars, and then dumps him back where he would have landed anyway, the plot line of Life of Brian is alarmingly coherent.
Brian, Christ's next-door neighbor as a toddler, grows up to hate the Roman oppressors, and joins a group of Judaean terrorists. He raids Pilate's palace with them, gets caught, and is sentenced to crucifixion by the proconsul, whose speech impediment undermines his pomp ("Bwian, you awe sentenced to cwucifixion.").
That's about it. The irreverence is not very sharp and not very frequent. One wonders why all the rabbinical groups are up in arms--only a few jokes about big noses and one very funny stoning scene would stir the yarmulke off the most orthodox Jew's head. More telling is a five-minute satire of the entire history of the early Christian church. Having chosen Brian as the true messiah at a sort of marketplace for prophets, several followers start interpreting his actions. Within minutes they have split into different sects, unable to agree why Brian has left a sandal behind. It's an extremely funny microcosmic version of the revisionism and distortion that twists the words and deeds of any cult leader.
If the Monty Python crew had been less inhibited, Life of Brian would have been a much funnier movie. A few incendiary jokes remain to keep the screen aflame, and to keep fans happy. But the troupe's newfound concern for order leads them to repeat a few jokes as running gags that would have been better left to explode only once.
LIFE OF BRIAN does not do the job on the gospels that Holy Grail did on the Arthurian legends. The scope is more timid, the technique less audacious. We had a right to expect better, funnier, or at least wilder. The more slavishly Monty Python tries to follow conventions--the more they tailor their films to play in Peoria--the less anyone will laugh at them. The film remains only a funny shadow of what might have been--like Jesus Christ beating a dead parrot.