TIFF Review: 'A Liar's Autobiography' Is An Imaginative But Not Wholly Satisfying Biopic Of Monty Python's Graham Chapman

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by Drew Taylor
September 8, 2012 12:00 AM
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A title screen introduces us to "A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman," saying that the voice that we will be hearing throughout the film is really Graham Chapman, made up from recordings he issued just before his death (he died less than a year after being diagnosed with tonsil cancer, at the age of 48). It's the quietest, and probably most truthful moment of the entire movie, since what follows is a whirligig 3D animated romp through select portions of Chapman's life, most notably his involvement with the Monty Python comedy group, of which he was a key component. It's lively and inventive but, even when told through his own words, Chapman remains something of a cipher, even harder to get at through all the visual dazzle.

To explain, briefly, how the film is set up – the film is animated, but unlike most animated films, which use a single animation studio (like, say, Pixar or Blue Sky), the filmmakers behind "A Liar's Autobiography" hired fourteen (!) animation studios. This was both a monetary and stylistic move, since breaking up the movie into smaller segments meant that they would only be charged for those sequences instead of for a lengthy and costly feature-length production. Also, the movie would employ a number of styles, so there are actually seventeen separate styles handled by the fourteen studios. And the filmmakers admitted that the different studios would produce really great work because they were trying to one-up whatever the other guys were doing.

The results are often times jaw-dropping, both in their inventiveness and complexity. We have gotten very accustomed to streamlined styles of animation in America, so it's genuinely shocking to have a movie start out with a dramatization of a Monty Python's Flying Circus stage show, in what appears to be three-dimensional paper cut-outs. (Just to clarify, the 3D is almost completely unnecessary and indeed the film will be broadcast on the EPIX satellite channel later this year without dimensionality.) Other sequences include an aerial World War II battle rendered with homosexual overtones that looks like the cover of a boy's adventure novel; a musical number set to Python standard "Sit On My Face," comprised of zippy animation that feels like an update of Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons; and a digression from Freud (voiced by Cameron Diaz for reasons we're still trying to wrap our head around) charmingly rendered in scratchy stop-motion animation. A whole host of animation styles and textures are used – traditional 2D animation, Flash animation, sophisticated 3D animation, and wonderful combinations of any and all of the above. For animation freaks like this writer, it's an embarrassment of riches.

Of course, the problem arises when you really want to know who Graham Chapman was, as a person and a comedian. You get glimpses of the early formation of the Python team (Terry Gilliam is described, wonderfully, as "an American draft dodger") but the strange alchemy of sensibilities and humor is never addressed or investigated. It's almost presented as if one day there wasn't Monty Python, and the next day there was. This could have been how it played out in real life, but dramatically, it's a fucking wash. Chapman's homosexuality is addressed, mostly through animated sequences that employ phallic imagery and one admittedly heartfelt bit where he tries to have a relationship with a woman but keeps thinking about a man. Chapman was out at a time when many were still very much locked in the closet, and his openness about the subject, even at the time of his death (with the AIDS crisis raging) is refreshingly honest and humane. But his alcoholism, which was every bit as big a part of his life as his homosexuality (except the alcoholism he covered up) is dealt with in annoyingly opaque ways, always flitting about at the edges of the frame but rarely taking center stage.

Another problem with "A Liar's Autobiography" is that, since it's told in Chapman's own voice, from tapes that were used for his autobiography (which, tellingly, had a total of five credited authors – Chapman, his longtime partner David Sherlock, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, David Yallop and Alex Martin), instead of narrative heft or biographical insight, the segments consist of stuff that Chapman thought was funny or clever. It leaves you lingering over events that aren't essential to what could have been a more complete overall story, and longing for bits to be filled in instead of whisked over. It is kind of staggering that they got the involvement of most of the other Python members (Terry Jones, John Cleese, Gilliam and Michael Palin are all involved) to come in and do voices, and yet their thoughts and memories of Chapman remain somewhat untouched. Although we suppose it's in keeping with the anarchistic streak of the group that the story be told in exactly this scatterbrained fashion.

Directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett freely admit that they didn't exactly know what they were doing when they signed on for the project, as they were documentarians who were jumping into 3D animation with reckless abandon, and we're sure that the production amounted to the animation equivalent of herding cats. We just wish as much time went into the storytelling as it did into making sure the different sections were cool and distinctive. "A Liar's Autobiography" is an overwhelming visual experience, but rarely is it an overwhelming emotional or intellectual one. This isn't true of the film in the last scene, a bit of footage from Chapman's funeral, where John Cleese makes you tear up, for a number of reasons. The moment is slightly undercut by a lack of understanding of how Chapman died. Like everything in "A Liar's Autobiography," it's both gripping and gauzy. [B]

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