fri 24/10/2014

A Liar's Autobiography | Film reviews, news & interviews

A Liar's Autobiography

Simple animation, complex man. Pipe-smoking Python Graham Chapman receives an appropriately idiosyncratic tribute

Graham Chapman: Do we really need to see his animated alter ego in a Seventies-style sex scene?

It is probably not unreasonable to argue that all of the original Monty Python's Flying Circus team – including lovely Michael Palin – were, and are, a complex bunch. But none were as complex as the late Graham Chapman. Gay, alcoholic and partial to smoking a pipe and playing authority figures such as army officers, there is more than enough meat there for a colourful film about his life.

In keeping with Chapman's unorthodox career, A Liar's Autobiography, which has been doing the festival rounds since last year, is a pretty unorthodox film. Directors Ben Timlett, Jeff Simpson and Bill "son of Terry" Jones have opted for a 3D animation, which means that when a pair of breasts hove into view, boy do they really hove into view. You worry that a nipple might have your eye out. Fourteen different animation companies were used, so the style jumps around, but it also means one is never bored. There are simple stick cartoons like a cheap Sixties childrens’ TV show alongside more elaborate segments, such as a visit to a safari park when the car is attacked by monkeys, which have a touch of Aardman about them.

At the centre of this nonsense we get the essential details of Chapman's life: childhood in war-time Leicester, up to Cambridge and beyond to stardom before dying at the horribly young age of 48 in 1989. The subtitle is "The Untrue Story of Graham Chapman", but most of the incidents, if not the detail, ring true. The narration is often by Chapman himself, using recordings of excerpts from the book of the same name made before he died in 1989, while there are also contributions from all of the Pythons apart from Eric Idle, and also Cameron Diaz, who for some inexplicable reason pitches up as Sigmund Freud.

graham chapmanThe result aspires to a kind of dizzy, surreal Gilliamesque madness, which is perhaps how the life of the co-creator of The Parrot Sketch felt at times. The Pythons may have been comedians but at their peak they were embraced by America and lived a rock'n'roll lifestyle that would make a lot of rock'n'rollers resemble Trappist monks. Chapman is portrayed as always being up for a booze-drenched party, whether at university or later with the likes of Keith Moon.

But too often the film feels stylistically like a bit of a mish-mash, probably inevitable given the number of different animators on board. It is also intermittently crude in a very old-fashioned way. We know that Chapman lived a life of excess but do we really need to see his animated alter ego in a Seventies-style humping sex scene which feels as if it has fallen out of some Robert Crumb cartoon strip? It would have been nice if the film could have lingered longer on his creative contributions to the team. He was a brilliant, distinctive writer but the only real sense we get of this comes during a scene with John Cleese in sweaty Ibiza, in which Cleese does all the hard work and Chapman lobs in the odd brilliant bon mot.

A Liar’s Autobiography will, of course, appeal to the army of Python devotees which seems to expand rather than diminish with time. But it is an odd addition to the growing pile of Pythonobilia. Not quite an official Python film yet it features most of the gang. Not quite a definitive biopic yet it gives you the gist. Not quite the Life of Graham then, but probably much more interesting than a film about the life of Michael Palin.

Watch the trailer of A Liar's Autobiography


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