And now for something completely different: an animated multi-chapter documentary life story that is narrated by its own subject. Who has, inconveniently, been dead for 23 years. And who’s probably making it all up anyway.
If that sounds like a Monty Python sketch, it is — or wants to be. “A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman” is based on the late comedian’s 1980 memoirs “A Liar’s Autobiography, Vol. VI,” and features Chapman’s own voice, taken from an unreleased reading of the book recorded at Harry Nilsson’s LA studios over two bleary nights in the ’80s. Co-directors Bill Jones (son of Python Terry Jones), Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett have set 14 different animators, using wildly varying approaches, on the chapters of Chapman’s life. They’ve also dragooned the elder Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam for voice work. (Eric Idle, apparently, is still sulking over being left to stage “Spam-a-Lot” on his own.)
The results are exactly as patchwork as that sounds, with sequences of rowdy, sacrilegious invention punctuated by long spells of tedium. This despite intentionally mismatched animation styles that range from home-cooked CGI to pastel washes to paper cutouts to blunt cartoons to near-photorealism. (On top of all that, “A Liar’s Autobiography” was meant to be seen in 3-D. The Brattle Theatre, which is showing the film as part of a weeklong Python festival, only has 2-D capabilities, which, given the undulating body parts in the groupie scenes, is probably a good thing.)
Chapman was the most conventionally good-looking of the troupe — there’s a reason he played King Arthur in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and Brian in “Life of Brian” — but he also seems to have been one of the most deranged, creatively and personally. He lived a relatively open gay life with longtime partner David Sherlock while keeping his raging alcoholism in the closet. (A lifelong pipe habit undoubtedly contributed to his 1989 death from throat cancer.) Cleese and company have spoken of Chapman as fundamentally unknowable, and the cagey blithering of his “autobiography” could stand as Exhibit A.
So, no, he didn’t spend time on a giant phallic spaceship orbiting Earth. And, no, the other Pythons weren’t actually monkeys. But “A Liar’s Autobiography” manages to convey a number of emotional truths even as it steadfastly avoids the facts. An early CGI sequence depicting a family vacation with Chapman’s grimly clueless parents goes a long way in explaining what the comedian spent a lifetime running from. And the climactic scenes of indolence and boredom (and crazed sushi chefs) in 1970s Los Angeles just barely mask a growing spiritual exhaustion.
The film’s mostly for Python completists, of whom there are many, as well as for animation junkies who will groove on the grab bag of styles. There’s a sadness and an underlying anger to “A Liar’s Autobiography,” though, that the filmmakers merely glance at before nervously laughing them off. Chapman self-medicated his demons with booze and lunacy, and while we got the “Dead Parrot” sketch (which he co-wrote) out of it, the comedian himself seems to have never stopped suspecting that the joke was on him.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.