Relatively confident that he will fail but curious to see what might come of the experiment, an alien council endows a perfectly average human with the power to do whatever he pleases in “Absolutely Anything.” Come to think of it, that must have been roughly how the financiers felt when backing Monty Python legend Terry Jones’ latest disappointment, a clunky sci-fi satire set to bomb abroad before it reaches U.S. theaters: Though the pic’s backers can’t have been too shocked by the result, Jones’ potential to surprise, plus his ability to call in favors from friends (including vocal performances from all five surviving Pythons and deceased comedy god Robin Williams), must have seemed to justify the gamble — all for nothing.
Speaking of gods, Jones’ premise — which surely would’ve worked better in animation — is just the sort of which all-powerful deities would approve, be they of the ancient Greek or vengeful Old Testament variety: The former were rumored to play such tricks on mortals with alarming regularity, while the latter would flood the planet or turn entire cities into salt when men failed His righteousness tests. Creatively speaking, the genesis for Jones and co-writer Gavin Scott, who spent decades tinkering on the script (then called “The Dog Who Saved the World”), were the Pioneer plaques NASA blasted into deep space two years before the release of Jones’ “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” arguably the greatest British screen comedy of all time.
Here, one of these tablets falls into the hands of a group of “superior beings” (actually, a council of grotesque CG aliens amusingly voiced by John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Jones himself). Judging by the council’s tablet collection, many other life forms, some undoubtedly more intelligent the others, have similarly attempted to make contact in the past, and all have been subjected to the same test: The council chooses an individual at random from the planet in question and tests his/her/its moral compass. Those who pass are invited to join the council. Those who don’t (nearly everyone) are obliterated, along with their inferior planets.
Thus, dumpy public-school English teacher Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg, overacting) is selected to represent the human race, granted the ability to do absolutely anything for the duration of the experiment. With a wave of his hand, Neil’s most capricious wish becomes the universe’s command — though the universe is kind of a stickler for specificity. “Let me have a really great body” results in Pegg’s head being awkwardly grafted onto a naked lady’s torso, while “Give me the body of a great man” transforms him into Albert Einstein (who is, thankfully, not naked), meaning that nearly every demand is soon followed by some sort of do-over, as soon as Jones has illustrated the unfunny consequences of an English teacher failing to grasp the use of his own language.
Neil starts small, wishing his dog Dennis would regurgitate the notes from his unfinished novel; then works his way up, giving Dennis the ability to speak (voiced by a silly-as-ever Williams, improvising for the last time); and finally makes his way to a few truly honorable demands, putting an end to homelessness, hunger and war — though even these have unforeseen downsides. Whereas Jones’ Monty Python projects famously mixed high and low humor, this script is mostly just immature, especially as Neil inevitably caves into carnal self-interest, first augmenting the family jewels by a few carats and finally enjoying his dream shag with the pretty neighbor (Kate Beckinsale) downstairs. But how can he re-earn her respect once she learns of his powers? And more importantly, is there any way to impress the trigger-happy aliens, who are ready to death-ray Earth out of existence?
The trouble with “Absolutely Anything” happens to be the same one besetting so many films in today’s CG era: Namely, when directors themselves can do absolutely anything onscreen, they often go overboard (Jim Carrey’s wish-fulfillment laffer “The Mask” comes to mind). Here, Neil brings the dead back to life (cue zombie resurrection scene), orders Dennis’ ordure to clean itself up, and gives “all pasty white Englishmen” big ears and webbed feet, resulting in unfunny renderings (some digital, others practical, all disappointing) of each of these scenarios.
It’s devastating to think how far Jones has fallen in the four decades since “Holy Grail,” in which he got more laughs banging a few coconuts together than he musters from his entire movie. Or, to quote from his last reasonably funny endeavor, “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”: “So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth, and pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space, ’cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”