“A Liar’s Autobiography (2012)” Review

One childhood is much like another. Amateur psychologists who think it clever to explain the character of the later man from a jumble of largely fictitious memories can ferret for their filth in other people’s autobiographies.

Why did I watch it?

This is based on Graham Chapman’s excellent A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI (which he wrote with four others). It’s an animation, and features vocal contributions from all of the Pythons except Eric Idle.

Did it meet expectations?

The primary performer is Chapman himself, despite having died in 1989. Three year earlier he made an audio recording of the book, and the film is built around that – so a bit like The Beatles’ Free As A Bird in that respect, or (Chapman’s sometime collaborator and contributor to Liar’s Autobiography) Douglas Adams’ turn as Agrajag in the 2004/5 Hitch Hiker’s radio series.

Chapman’s delivery reflects its purpose – as part of 3 hour reading – rather than being a dramatic performance intended for the big (or small) screen. But once you settle in to the film his wry, sardonic delivery works well.

The animation is by several different animation houses with wildly differing styles. This reflects the book’s discursive structure, as I remember it – it’s not so much an autobiography as a collection of anecdotes and sketches between which Chapman provides rather poignant and honest glimpses of his struggle with alcoholism or his exploration of his sexuality. The film is at least as disjointed as the book! At one point Palin, voicing himself (or at least, the monkey representation of himself) apologises to Chapman for doing so: “I’d forgotten you’re doing all the voices in this section Graham.” The scene then continues with Chapman’s Palin impression.

Some of the animation adds some delightful visual gags or clever references that enhance the narration. Other bits distract. Because most of the performances are by the Pythons (there’s a cameo from Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud) even though it isn’t a Python film, it feels as though it ought to be animated in Gilliam’s Flying Circus style. At first it’s hard not to compare the animation to Gilliam, but the changes in style actually prove rather effective at distracting from this, as well as creating variety and delineating between chapters and sketches.

The film’s probably only going to be of interest to those who know something of Chapman and the history of British comedy. And towards the end – particularly the Hollywood sequences – the film does begin to sag. But it’s a remarkable project to be realised 23 years after Chapman died – and while the book still provides a lot more (more than half has been cut) the animations, the clever use of clips, and the voices of his friends and colleagues makes this a pleasing complement.

You should watch it if…

  • You’re a Python fan and/or you enjoy surreal humour

You shouldn’t watch it if…

  • You like a coherent narrative structure

Up next: the vernal equinox…

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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