Film Review: A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman

The life of a founding Monty Python member is comedically dramatized in this largely animated 3D version, based on his (sort-of) autobiography. Python fans should love it—but will anyone else?

Call Graham Chapman the forgotten Monty Python. Certainly he was one of the lesser known—not just because he died of throat cancer 23 years ago, but also because his post-Python life rarely took him anywhere near the public eye. And yet, from the ample evidence on display in this film, no Monty Python member was more, well, Pythonesque. Chapman was the embodiment of Monty Python. His sense of humor, his very sensibility infused the ensemble. Or did all those years of close collaboration simply embed the collective sensibility in him?

Probably it was a little of both. Either way, that Python sensibility also infuses this movie, directed by three men who obviously loved Monty Python enough to get it right. (Two of them, Bill Jones, son of Python’s Terry Jones, and Ben Timlett, directed and produced the 2010 BBC documentary series "Monty Python: Almost the Truth—The Lawyers Cut"). But then, given the source material, how could they go far wrong? Adapted from Chapman’s 1980 memoir A Liar’s Autobiography (co-written with David Sherlock, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Addams, David Yalop and Alex Martin), the film not only takes most of its narrative content from the text, but also features a running narration by Chapman himself—who recorded a cover-to-cover reading of his memoir in 1986. Quite literally, this film is Chapman’s story, in his own words.

As if that weren’t enough of an attraction for a built-in audience of Python faithful, the film also features most of the original Python members (Eric Idle is conspicuous in his unexplained absence), who supply all but a few of the voices, each of them playing multiple characters—including the animated versions of themselves. Add snippets of classic Python sketches and films, plus interview excerpts and other archival footage, and well, what’s not to like for a Python fan?

But what may surprise all but the most dedicated Python fan is the self-deprecating candor and bittersweet whimsy with which Chapman’s memoir lays out his most private joys, hang-ups, foibles and demons. Starting at the beginning (according to him he was born as bombs were falling all over his home city of Leicester, England, during a World War II air raid), the film follows pretty linear (if free-associating) timeline that only occasionally digresses into flights of Chapman fantasy (unless aliens really did once abduct Chapman out of his home and carry him into outer space). For the most part, though, A Liar’s Autobiography stays earthbound, charting Chapman’s fitful progress from bookworm kid to Cambridge University to doctor of medicine to key figure in one of the most accomplished, revered, brilliantly original comedy troupes since The Marx Brothers.
Among the archival nuggets, the film shows us some of the earliest recorded sketch comedy featuring Chapman and fellow Cambridge alumnus John Cleese, whose collegiate writing collaborations led them both to writing-performing gigs on various 1960s British television shows. Clearly, they had “it” from the start. Every time either one of them opens his mouth in these clips, it’s as if we’re seeing the germ of Pythonism sprouting into early life. These are some of the relatively few live-action highlights in a film that has been animated in a mixed bag of styles by 14 different animation houses, who together have conjured an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness hop-skip-and-jump across the decades, landing only on the moments in Chapman’s life that really mattered: Chapman’s gay coming out (long before it was hip to do so); his meeting and courtship of longtime companion David Sherlock; the genesis and formation of Monty Python; his debauched days and nights as a Hollywood party animal; the rollercoaster ride of his increasingly out-of-control alcoholism.

But even at its darkest—in the briefly harrowing animated depiction of Chapman in the hallucinatory Lost Weekend-type depths of his four-pint-of-gin-a-day addiction—there’s a certain lightness of being to the retelling. Maybe by the time he was ready to tell all about himself (his booze problem had long been a well-kept secret), Chapman was at peace with all the ups and downs of his life. Or maybe he was just making a good show of it—keeping a cheerily stiff upper lip, and all that. Has there ever been a comedian who didn’t know how to do that?

For anyone not inured to Chapman’s cockeyed, absurdist take on the human condition, this film’s narrative leaps and its numerous animation styles may come off too chaotic, messy, hit-and-miss. And yet that makes it very much in the Monty Python style and spirit: self-indulgent, at times sloppily improvised, spilling over the edges of good taste and, yes, hit-and-miss. But they didn’t really miss all that often, and when they hit, it was often a knockout—and often unforgettably so. Some four decades after their heyday, certain punch lines to classic sketches are still instantly, resonantly recallable—as this film’s briefest snippet from Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” skit vividly demonstrates.
Will the unindoctrinated enjoy this journey into the life and mind of a Python architect? Will they even get it? That question may be moot, since few Python non-fans are likely to be queuing up for tickets. But what they’ll be missing is a fascinating experiment in film narrative, one that skitters seamlessly from fact to fiction, while careening between the ridiculous, the sublime and the sober—in 17 different animation styles. Of course it’s eclectic and erratic and all over the place. What more fitting way to portray the rampant, raging genius that was Graham Chapman?