Review: ‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ is a disappointing look at Graham Chapman’s life

When I discovered Monty Python, I fell head over heels for them as soon as I saw them.  It wasn’t a case of gradually getting interested in their work.  There are plenty of things that required repeat exposure before I formed a full opinion, but not with Python.  I was in fifth grade, and a friend named Craig Carver had me over to his house one afternoon.  He told me he had a movie to show me that would blow my mind, and in this particular case, he was right.  “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” felt to me like something I had been waiting for my whole life, a secret language that I spoke as soon as I heard it.

I quickly found myself obsessed with them, watching “Flying Circus” anytime it aired, tracking down their other movies.  When “Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life” came out, I talked my way into seeing it in the theater three different times, delighted each time to see the horror that washed over everyone when they reached the Mr. Creosote sequence.  I bought the records they put out (“Matching Tie and Handkerchief” was a particular favorite) and I memorized all of it.

The solo careers of each of the members of the troupe have also fascinated me over the years.  I love Terry Gilliam’s work as a director, and I think John Cleese has created some amazing work.  Michael Palin’s travel books and specials are great fun, and Eric Idle is pretty much always good for a laugh.  Of all of the Pythons, though, I expected that Graham Chapman would be the one to break out as a leading man.  He seemed like the best actor of all of them, and it seemed natural that he was the leading man in “Holy Grail” and “Life Of Brian.”  For someone who only knew them onscreen, it was a shock when Chapman was the first person who died.  Looking at “A Liar’s Autobiography,” it seems like it was far less of a shock to the people in his life.

I wish I could report that I thought “A Liar’s Autobiography” was a great tribute to Chapman or an involving portrait of his life, but it’s neither.  Animated by several different teams of filmmakers, the film uses recordings of Chapman reading from his autobiography as well as new voice work by Cleese, Gilliam, Terry Jones, Palin, Carol Cleveland and Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud, and the biggest problem with it is that there’s no real energy to it as a movie.  It’s a lot of very busy visual work and sort of aimlessly edited vocal work, and while there are a few good stories in there, I don’t feel like I really have any better understanding of who Chapman was or what drove him or where his comedy came from or what demons led him to self-destruct as spectacularly as he did.  I think there is some affection on display in the way they’ve portrayed Chapman, and I understand why they’d want to use animation a la Gilliam to portray his life story, but I don’t think it works as a movie.

It’s frustrating… I have to imagine that there is a way to tell the story of the creativity that drove the Pythons to create their remarkable work, but this fails in much the same way “Holy Flying Circus” did.  Just because their films are entertaining and enduring doesn’t mean the story of how that works was made will also entertain.  “A Liar’s Autobiography” is a noble attempt, but a painful sit, and I can’t recommend it to anyone but the most obsessive of Python fanatics, and even for them, it might be tough to take.

“A Liar’s Autobiography” is now playing in limited release.