Fishing for an Answer

The Meaning of Life Directed by Terry Jones At the Harvard Square Theater.

SOME OF US, the sensible ones, never doubted that Monty Python had an inside line on the meaning of life. Then again some of us run out of tingers when we try to count the number of times we saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Some of us laugh at just about every muscle twitch in John Cleese face. We even snicker at the very approximate "John Cleese imitation" attempted by his cohorts Michael Palen and Terry Jones (Palin sat on Jones's shoulders) before a screening last week of the troupe's latest cinematic venture.

But blind devotion couldn't quite obscure the sustained flat moments in every one of the troupe's movies following Holy Grail Unfortunately, schtick after schtick failed to approach the inspired idiocy that King Arthur and his knights achieved in that film, Rewriting the Gospels (Life of Brian) offered promise, but on film even the madcap Pythoneers seemed to hold themselves back under the weight of their own irreverence. Modeled after a Lewis Carroll poem. Jabberwocky deteriorated into nerve-deadening blood and gore. A romp through time and space with a seven-year-old (Time Bandits) fell into the saddest trap of all--it was cute. And a couple of truly limp filmings of live shows made even the most adoring followers doubt any future theme movie could recapture that early perfect match between spooter and spoofee.

The troupe's latest venture--and, according to hints, probably their last for some time both legitimizes and assuages such fears True. Life Itself seems rather a broad topic to attempt visualizing. And the proximity of the eternal verities (birth, religion, contraception, and the life of a waiter) have transformed the original Python tone of genial silliness to satire. But despite these signs of maturity, the group has evidently regained its comic fire--and the comedians roll around in their capacious subject matter with every bit of the old gusto and panache.

The format--loose segments titled. "The Miracle of Birth." "Growth and Learning." "Fighting Each Other." and so forth--offers director Terry Jones the opportunity to set up classic spoof shots from Death pacing the beach to the omnipresent British boys' schoolroom. And it enables crazed animator Terry Gilliam to create some of the wackiest sequences he has ever penned, galaxies swoop in and out of file cabinets and the sun rapidly mitotes into a fetus while, for background music, a typical Python "French" accent promises to "explain it all for you tonight." So broad are the cinemographic possibilities that the movie's structure, crisp at first, ends up as a loose collection of scattershot satires.

Still the overall effect-- reminiscent of the Python T V series is far livelier than similarly constructed spoofs like Mel Brooks' History of the World. Part I or Woody Allen's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask And of course, at the end Monty Python reveals the long awaited answer to the meaning of life.

THE ALL-PURPOSE PLOTLINE provides a virtual directory of comic strategies and styles. The segments which work best draw on the longtime Python staple of pure, straightforward silliness. This impulse motivates Gilliam, as a crusty general, to set up a lace tablecloth in an embattled World War I trench. Viewers are cheerfully bid welcome "to the Middle of the Film, where we will play a game of... Find the Fish" Fish, particularly goldfish, remain a dominant theme throughout, prompting various subtitled admonishments from the "management" and offering ironic social commentary from a strategically positioned aquarium.

Other segments demonstrate the highly developed technique of the gross-out, featuring copious vomit, blood, genitals, and disembodied organs ("Can we have your liver, then?") They mesh oddly with the more detached, sardonic skits which are this film's major departure from previous technique. The knack for inspired nonsense remains--no other sensibility could mock Catholicism through the spectacle of rows of nuns. Busby-Berkeley-style, caroling that "Every sperm is sacred." But the addition of an explicit theme quiets the ridiculous proceedings somewhat, leading the film to a previously avoided mass-appeal glossiness. Distributed through Universal Pictures, Meaning of Life is the first Python film wholly backed by a major concern and released smack into the American commercial mainstream. The difference, which shows subtly in the film's professional polish, in its tilt towards topical satire and identifiable allusion, is not altogether encouraging.

Such minor infusions of relevance, though, aren't enough to stop the momentum of the comedy, which hurtles on with all Monty Python's ludicrous charm. When Cleese and Graham Chapman start mugging at the camera, the material they're acting becomes supremely irrelevant. When Terry Jones dresses up as an old crone this time as a sort of Mother Hubbard, dancing and singing with her 90 ragged children--he she looks exactly like 39 other Jones crones from Holy Grail or earlier. And fortunately, the gag is just as ridiculous the fortieth time around. There must be some deeper meaning to life--even Monty Python says so--but with all the commotion from the dancing goldfish and waiters and children and file cabinets, it's hard to put your finger on just what it could be.