OIAF Review: 'A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman'

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
(UK, 85 min.)
Dir. Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett
Feat. Grahman Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Carol Cleveland, Cameron Diaz.
Still courtesy eOne Films

Fear not, parents! The Ottawa International Film Festival is not all Bambi and bunnies! There’s some R-rated fun to be had in the features programme with a film made not for the kiddies, but for mum and dad. Mature audiences at OIAF 2013 are far more likely to enjoy A Lair’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman than the young folks are, anyways, since this film is a silly lark that looks back upon the greatest comedy troupe of your parents’ youth. This one is strictly for fans.

A Liar’s Autobiography advertises itself not as a “Monty Python film” but as a “Graham Chapman film”. It falls somewhere between a documentary and a biopic as it adapts Graham Chapman’s bullshit-infused autobiography to the screen. The spirit of Monty Python’s irreverent humour is alive and well in Chapman’s story, though, as the film re-unites Chapman with John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam for the first time since his death from throat cancer 23 years ago. They’re also joined by a fun troupe of guest stars, most notably Cameron Diaz as a wacky stop-motion puppet called Dr. Sigmund Freud.

Few subjects get to play themselves in the dramatization of his own life’s story, so A Liar’s Autobiography takes an ingenious flight of fancy as it brings Chapman back from the dead using audio recordings of the man reading A Liar’s Autobiography before he “selfishly dropped dead,” as John Cleese notes in the characteristically humorous eulogy that closes the picture. Chapman’s life is presented in fourteen segments by directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett, and each one of these fourteen bits is created by a different animation studio that imagines its subject in a unique visual style. Chapman thus appears in a multitude of guises such as good old-fashioned hand drawings, stereoscopic 3D, and Claymation monkeys.

The potpourri of styles pays tribute to a comic who wore many faces during his life, transforming personas in and out of his public and private lives just as often as he changed characters during the sketch days of the Flying Circus. Jones, Simpson, and Timlett flip back and forth between the fourteen segments with the same irreverence with which Chapman tells his story, so A Liar’s Autobiography unfolds as a frenetic splashdash of comedic storytelling and visual pizazz. Alternatively, the aberrant nature of A Liar’s Autobiography often makes the tale seem more like a self-indulgent farce than like an insightful tribute. It covers a lot of bases, but it never hits home since the story, tone, and style are all over the map.

Fans looking to gain much insight into Chapman’s creative force might find the film lacking, although the subject’s own voice provides a dry and droll character of humour that came to define his work. More knowledge is certainly to be gained from the profusion of naughty bits that find their way into the story. Chapman seemed to enjoy lots of sex with men and woman alike during his life. Chapman, a self-proclaimed “poof”, diagnosed himself as a 70 on the Kinsey scale during his own college-age experimentation. A Liar’s Autobiography provides a roller-coaster ride of animated cocks of all shapes and sizes—even colours, although they’re usually pink—and plenty of bums and boobs to balance off Chapman’s carefree spirit of “anything goes”.

A Liar’s Autobiography, for all its adult content, is rather juvenile. It always plays like minor Monty Python and the anatomical sight gags, while often funny, rarely reach the wittiness of which the troupe is capable (and refers to directly during a funny opening bit with Oscar Wilde). The musical number “Sit on My Face,” however, is an uproarious centrepiece that shows the Monty Python crew in top form.

A Liar’s Autobiography certainly succeeds in providing an intimate and objective portrait of its subject as the filmmakers—and Chapman himself—refuse to shy away from Chapman’s heavy alcoholism, which was his darkest secret. The film takes Chapman and the audience through some gonzo escapades of drunken debauchery, rendered weirder and more surreal through the animation scheme that feels wildly incongruous with its subject matter. The film therefore details a brilliant and troubled mind, and never lets the audience know how much or how little of the story is fact or folly.

A few minutes of greatness make A Liar’s Autobiography a must-see for diehard fans. It’s a treat to watch the Monty Python crew reunite and animate a corpse, so The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman should best be enjoyed for its feat of animation. The range of styles is most impressive as it shows how a variety of creative sparks firing in different ways when ignited by the same idea. It might not always work, but A Liar’s Autobiography honours the spirit Chapman left behind the creative juices he spit out along the way.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman screens:
Friday, September 20, 7:00 pm – World Exchange Empire 7
Saturday, September 21, 11:00 am – World Exchange Empire 7 (GALA)
Saturday, September 21, 9:15 pm – World Exchange Empire 7

Please visit www.animationfestival.ca for more information on OIAF.