Why are we here? What is our purpose on Earth? What is our place in the Universe? What is the Meaning of Life? Before we consider that, we are treated to the supporting feature, "The Crimson Permanent Assurance", where an office block of accountants bands together to rise up against their cruel overlords of a corporation, taking to the high seas of international finance to dominate the world - until unforeseen circumstances intervene. Anyway, where were we, oh yes, what is The Meaning of Life?
Well, it's the Monty Python team's last film, for a start. Following the pattern of their legendary BBC programmes of 1969-74, which consisted of loosely connected skits, all their films were episodic, from the sketches of And Now For Something Completely Different to the two follow ups which had proper stories, but nevertheless demonstrated they could not leave their television origins behind when all six got together once again.. The Meaning of Life saw them reverting more blatantly to the sketch format on a bigger budget, but with less satisfying results, despite its Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in its year.
Despite its sustained irreverence, it did attempt to tackle its main topic, however glibly, a tone born from an overall exasperation with the rest of the human race that informed every frame. Divided into segments such as "The Miracle of Birth", "Fighting One Another", "Middle Age" and, naturally, "Death" the general observation of existence is a bitter, even despairing, one where humanity is too concerned with the basics of life (sex, eating, fighting) ever to aspire to anything more spiritually or even cosmically fulfilling. Most of that blame is placed at religion and authority for keeping us divided in order to rule us with more accomplishment than they would manage without them.
The level of humour strains for outrageousness throughout, probably far too hard, presenting the exploding Mr Creosote (Terry Jones) taking a wafer thin mint too many at a posh restaurant (this became the film's signature gag, for better or worse), a headmaster (John Cleese) taking a sex education lesson a little too far but still ordering the pupils around with long-suffering irritability, or a daft attack on the Catholic view on contraception (don't worry, Protestants are lampooned too) taking the form of an elaborate musical number. It's as if the team got together and thought "Where can we go after Life of Brian? How more controversial can we be?" but neglected the wit and inventive absurdity that made a lot of their previous work so enjoyable.
There are laughs in there (the ocarina, "I didn't have the mousse", reasons for not wanting to drill), but there's too much of the sixth form "shock" humour like the live organ transplants or the execution sequence for The Meaning of Life to be judged up there with the Pythons' best efforts. It's all perfectly watchable, the songs and musical sequences are surprisingly good - Eric Idle was evidently enthusiastic about those at least, even if John Cleese indicated the whole production was thrown together rather than refined, but it could have been so much better. There were riffs on their past glories, even one of their trademark "follow the character as they take a walk" sections, but you could understand why the team ended their work together as a six-piece after this; Graham Chapman's untimely death six years later only served to leave this as their ultimate coda together, their hit 2014 reunion notwithstanding. In fact, the best bit here was that short supporting feature "The Crimson Permament Assurance" which is fantastically imaginative and gets your hopes up for the quality of the main film. Watch for: the extremely bizarre "Find the Fish" sequence, also created by Terry Gilliam, as were his ever-impressive animations.