Graham Chapman may not have been the funniest member of Monty Python (he certainly placed among the top six), but where his story really grabs people is with its gravitas. The openly gay actor died at age 48 from throat cancer, leaving behind a mostly hilarious, often poignant audio recording of his half-invented memoirs. Those tracks serve as the backbone for “A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman,” an unwieldy animated free-for-all (in 3D) featuring vocal contributions by four other Pythons that’s sadly lacking in both the comedy and tragedy of Chapman’s life. Cult-within-a-cult status awaits.
In what filmmakers Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett adamantly insist is neither a Monty Python film nor a documentary — and what, one might add, is neither a traditional biopic nor a very good one — the project slices and dices Chapman’s book among 14 animation studios, commissioning sequences of a few minutes each in a range of wildly different styles. Rather than supporting Chapman’s narration, the animated material has a tendency to distract, competing with the comic’s existing jokes.
Chapman, who played the leads in both “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian,” differed from his cohorts in that he graduated from medical school and might have enjoyed a career of far less fame and sex. The film isn’t much interested in that chapter of his life, lingering instead on his childhood, with a gorgeously rendered yet somewhat taxing anecdote about his father’s stern disapproval of book-learning, and his subsequent adventures as what he called “a raging poof, but no mincing — a butch one with a pipe.”
Perhaps Jones and Timlett felt they had covered the more dramatic aspects of Chapman’s life already in their highly entertaining six-hour docu, “Monty Python: Almost the Truth,” opting to play this lighter project for laughs. But the filmmakers struggle with the central joke of Chapman’s memoirs, in which the author (aided by four other writers) repeatedly interrupts his more outrageous anecdotes to remind readers that much of what they’re hearing is blatantly invented, exaggerated or otherwise unreliable.
Playful sequences embellish Chapman’s already overcooked sexual history, including bits in which he works his way through a Village People-like lineup of partners, accompanied by the gratuitously vulgar lyrics of “Sit on My Face” — a song written by Eric Idle, the one Python who didn’t otherwise participate. The other four pitch in to play themselves, as well as various other characters from Chapman’s book (John Cleese offers a particularly amusing, high-pitched impression of David Frost), with Cameron Diaz, of all people, as a satirical psychoanalyst.
With its competing mix of animation styles, little improved by the decision to exhibit in 3D, and rowdy collection of anecdotes, “A Liar’s Autobiography” is never dull. Unfortunately, it’s also seldom laugh-out-loud funny, hampered by a depressing literalness with which several of the toon teams interpret Chapman’s words. A framing scene taken from one of Python’s live shows lovingly reconstructs the paper-cutout style Terry Gilliam applied to “Flying Circus,” though the technique appears less charming when done digitally.
An inspired idea to depict Monty Python as monkeys (during an argument in which the members pitch “Owl Stretching Time” and “A Horse, a Bucket and a Spoon” as alternate names for their then-unnamed series) falls just short of the spirit the film needed, in which the characters onscreen express skepticism toward the narrator’s fabulist tendencies. In the book, Chapman gets candid about his alcoholism — at one point, his daily gin take topped four pints — but the film treats such reckless drinking as Hunter S. Thompson-esque fun, subverting its best shot at revealing something honest and true about its subject.