I loved watching the Monty Python troupe. I loved the Flying Circus television series and marvel at how so many of the skits (dead parrots, silly walks, and killer jokes) make me laugh today as if watching them for the first time. Their material and their performances are timeless - the borders around comedy started to blur as these six gentlemen provided something completely different, indeed. John, Michael, Eric, the two Terry's and the late, great Graham Chapman are deserving of their legendary status for that series alone.
Of course they also provided some feature films (I've always regarded The Holy Grail as my favorite knee-slapper), with none being as controversial as the 1979 release Life of Brian. The story of a chap born in a manger and visited by Wise Men who were in the wrong place in the right time created an uproar among many Christians on both sides of the pond. In England, local councils took advantage of provisions allowing them to ban the film in their jurisdictions. Eventually, the heated attitudes over the movie lead to a television showdown between two members of the troupe defending the film against Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, both of whom had just seen the film...sans the 15 minutes at the start, covering some important story lines.
Holy Flying Circus is a 2011 British television film that recreates the Life of Brian controversy as a docudrama...or make that a docucomedy...
...for this movie tries to cover serious subject manner as if it was itself a 90 minute Monty Python sketch. Director Owen Harris and his team assembled an undeniably talented cast of performers, with the resemblances to the actual Python gang ranging from impressive to almost eerie. (I could swear at times that really was Eric Idle and not Steve Punt on the screen.)
Harris and screenwriter Tony Roche consistently drop in Pythonesque touches throughout the film - serious moments are interrupted by Gilliam-type animations coming in from nowhere; surrealist moments abound and, in true Python style, the roles of the major female parts (surrounding Michael Palin's world) are performed by the male actors in drag doing multiple characters.
So how did all of this work out...or not? For the first thirty minutes of the film I was longing for the real troupe - this cast was talented and the Python brand of humor was spot-on... but it was like drinking a twelve dollar bottle of Bordeaux when you know in your heart-of-hearts that Chateau Margeaux Grand Cru is the real deal. Why settle for less? At the same time, there was some serious historical information (death threats included) that was being interrupted by some less-than-funny sequences which just seemed to be there to show that the director and his cast had the whole Python schtick down pat. Yawn.
The second third of the film had me more optimistic and hoping that this flic could really deliver. The values at stake were fully entrenched with what the Python gang felt was on the line and some of the comedy bits seemed more inspired and less rehashed. (The bargain basement light saber/sword fight between puppet versions of the Palin and Cleese characters was a scream...but it was the first and only time I really found myself laughing out loud at what I was viewing.)
By the time the last thirty minutes unspool, you find yourself in the "sober" debate that takes place on the Friday Night, Saturday Morning tele show, which is where the unease between serious argument and comic follies really becomes uncomfortable...and simply, plain doesn't work.
As much as I really wanted to like this film, I can't recommend it. I've seen some enthusiastic reviews for it from across the pond but from where I stand Holy Flying Circus sits as a tribute film that would have been better served by a serious, analytical Python doc with several Life of Brian scenes spliced in. (As a side note...but a rather significant one...several members of the Python troupe were unimpressed by this production and it's "inaccuracies".)
As far as the real debate (hosted by Tim Rice) that took place between Palin/Cleese and their detractors go, there are several uploads available for your examination...here's one of them.
I say this film tastes - NOT HOMEMADE.