Members of the famed British comedy troupe Monty Python were already drifting apart by the late ’70s, following the end of their BBC sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the success of their hilarious medieval spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Nonetheless, the public demand for new Python product proved irresistible. Coincidentally, troupe member Eric Idle used a running gag whenever anyone asked for the title of the collective’s next movie: He said it was Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. Idle’s idea stuck, after a fashion, so when the six Pythons finally reunited, they made the Biblical satire Life of Brian, which was written by the entire group, designed by in-house animator Terry Gilliam, and directed by troupe member Terry Jones. Audiences expecting the sustained brilliance of Holy Grail were disappointed, although in some respects Life of Brian is a better movie than its predecessor—the picture has a harder satirical edge and a stronger storyline. Unfortunately, those aren’t the qualities people want from Python, and Life of Brian underwhelms as a comedy.
Set in Judea during the era of the Roman Empire, the film begins with the Three Wise Men arriving to bestow gifts on the baby Jesus. However, they accidentally enter the stable next door to Jesus’ birthplace and fleetingly anoint one Brian Cohen as the messiah. That humiliating mix-up foreshadows a series of unpleasant events that befall Brian (Graham Chapman) once he reaches adulthood. Repeatedly mistaken for a messiah, Brian gets drawn into the world of Jewish radicals fighting Roman oppression; subsequently, he’s captured by Romans and sentenced to crucifixion.
While the Pythons present a handful of inspired gags in the course of telling this brazen story, Life of Brian has significant handicaps. The narrative is inherently depressing, and presenting a linear storyline mostly precludes the sort of irreverent nonsense that distinguishes the best Python work. (The brief appearance of space aliens halfway through the movie is a welcome reprieve.) Plus, for every clever line—“We enter the Caesar Augustus Memorial Sewer”—there’s a cheap bit like the scene in which a lisping Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin) scandalizes his subjects by talking about his pal “Biggus Dickus.”
As in Grail, the Pythons each play multiple characters, but Chapman dominates since the Brian character appears in nearly every scene. And while Chapman’s exasperation is droll (when forced to proclaim his Jewishness, Brian shouts, “I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and I’m proud of it!”), it’s no fun to watch the downward spiral of a condemned coward. Placing such a character at the center of a Biblical epic is a clever joke, but the narrative contrivance makes Life of Brian feel more cerebral than comedic.
Still, even though Life of Brian is the least consistently funny of Python’s features, mediocre Python is better than the best efforts from most comedy troupes. Who else could come up with genius vignettes like the scene in which Brian paints anti-Roman graffiti on the side of a palace, only to be interrupted by an uptight centurion (John Cleese), who points out the grammatical errors in Brian’s writing and makes Brian paint his slogan 100 times on the wall as a lesson? That’s Python satire at its most sublime, and exactly the sort of thing Life of Brian does not have in sufficient abundance—although it must be said that the movie concludes with the most fabulously inappropriate musical number in cinematic history, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Life of Brian: GROOVY