By James KeastIt’s difficult not to agree with the Pythons’ own assessment of their work, sprinkled liberally about this stuffed DVD issue: as a film, it could be better. As moments of inspired lunacy, it’s some of their best. It might rank third in their feature film canon, but The Meaning of Lifeis a damn good third.
In this 1983 film, the English sketch comedians — whose Flying Circus was a decade past by this point — tackle the very meaning of all things. Or at least that’s the theme they came up with after a series of only occasionally productive writing sessions before resident grump John Cleese put his foot down. Surprisingly, as good as The Meaning of Life turns out to be in retrospect — its bawdy, tawdry silliness seems all the more refreshing in our increasingly conservative film environment — the real treats on this DVD point to what could have been.
The Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, discuss the film treatments they contemplated (and that Gilliam would clearly have preferred), including Monty Python’s World War III and one in which the troupe would be put on trial for crimes against film. No matter: Gilliam was hardly there, since he got a soundstage, crew and gobs of cash to make his short film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, on his own. "No one told me to stop shooting," he responds when everyone else complains that his 14-minute effort cost more than the feature. It’s oddly curious that in the commentary, Gilliam actually confuses his own career, referring to Brazil’s influence on his Crimson short, when the reverse is actually true. (Brazil came out in 1985.)
The two-disc DVD goes all out with extensive documentaries, deleted scenes, alternate songs and typically over-the-top absurdities about the film’s restoration and their financial motivations. Python DVDs may be the Holy Grail for comedy fans, but Terry Jones is right: the film deserved one more writing pass to make it about the meaning of one single life. A boy named Brian maybe. Plus: "making of" featurettes, promotional material, more. (Universal)