Thursday, March 1, 2012
100 Movies - No. 62: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Comedy, 91 minutes
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Starring John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam
One of the saddest things about the movie industry is the reluctance to take risks. Studios know that if you release a comic book movie, it will make money. If you have success of any kind, don't be afraid to churn out several sequels. But the most disturbing thing of all is what passes for comedy in today's world.
Comedy is extremely subjective. What works for me might not work for others. If you examine the previous 61 titles in this 100 movies series, you won't find anything that is classified solely as a comedy. Films such as Amelie, As Good as It Gets and Midnight in Paris certainly have a great deal of comedic content, but they also contain dramatic elements.
It's not that I don't like to laugh or don't have a sense of humor, it's just unrealistic to me when a movie tries to tell a joke in every sentence. I'm too aware that I am being manipulated. Maybe it has something to do with my age, but I don't think it's funny watching people get hit in the genitals repeatedly or fail to make it to the bathroom in time. Innuendo or scatological humor ceased to make me laugh two or three decades ago. Physical humor can work, but it has to be executed well.
Why am I bothering to tell you this?
The six members of the Monty Python team make me laugh, despite using all of the techniques described above. I keep asking myself why that is, and I think it's a combination of things. The writing is superb and unpredictable. If I see a joke coming from a mile away, I'm not likely to find it funny. Even though most of Python's material is extremely silly, it has a kind of sophisticated brilliance.
Who else could reduce the Lady of the Lake myth to:
"Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government."
There's also the problem of acting ability and comic timing. Good writing can be ruined by poor execution. My favorite comedians can all act, and some of my favorite comedy comes from actors better known for dramatic roles. Something inside me rears up when people tell me they enjoyed Jack and Jill, Little Man or The Love Guru. If that's your kind of humor, you probably won't get much out of this review.
People like to laugh and that's why they love comedies. It's easy to watch and doesn't require much thought. There's no possibility that you'll look bad in front of your friends because you failed to understand the plot - if there is a plot. If you miss a joke, you can catch it again when they repeat it for the fourth or fifth time. Most dumb comedies run out of ideas in the first 45 minutes and struggle to approach the minimum expected running time that audiences will consider acceptable.
Here's a thought: if you spend your time and money watching terrible comedies, the studios think they should make more because it's obviously successful. It doesn't matter whether the audience liked the movie as long as they paid to be there. That money could have gone to serious filmmakers with something to say.
Are you still reading?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is complete nonsense. There is hardly any plot. The jokes are frequent and silly. But, somehow, it all works.
The plot, such as it is, shows King Arthur trying to recruit knights for his Round Table at Camelot. When they finally get there, they decide it's a silly place. God gives them something to do instead, by charging them with the task of finding the Holy Grail. It's all just an excuse for a series of loosely related sketches. The plot is almost completely irrelevant.
The humor is bizarre and it's written with a strange kind of flawed logic. You'll discover how to tell whether someone is a witch or a king, why you should never allow Lancelot to attend weddings, and how deadly white rabbits can be. There are a few oddly-placed songs, but listen to the lyrics and you'll probably laugh. The budget was too small to pay for real horses, so they just used coconuts. Don't expect a proper resolution. The story just stops dead in its tracks.
I've loved the humor of Monty Python since I was a child. Every member is likeable and the six have been responsible for some of the most quotable sketches ever made. Whether it's dead parrots, cheese shops, lumberjacks, silly walks, Yorkshiremen or spam, it never gets old for me. John Cleese was also responsible for Fawlty Towers, which, despite only running for 12 episodes, is one of the best comedies ever made.
Monty Python isn't for everyone. It's a very particular kind of British humor that some just won't get at all. Like the movie itself, this review just stops dead in its tracks.
If you like Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Holy Grail is the best movie the Python's ever made, but Life of Brian is also worth your time. It tells the story of someone who was mistaken for the messiah.
I mentioned that most comedy falls flat for me unless it is contained within a drama. Here are a few exceptions:
Peter Sellers - The Pink Panther Series
Leslie Nielsen - The Naked Gun Series
Steve Martin - All of Me, The Man with Two Brains, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
John Belushi - Animal House, The Blues Brothers
Jacques Tati - Play Time and anything involving Monsieur Hulot
Most of my favorite comedies are TV shows rather than movies. Notables include:
MASH, Frasier, Fawlty Towers, Good Neighbors, Red Dwarf, Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Friends, Huff, Ever Decreasing Circles and Men Behaving Badly.
Like movies, some of the best examples contain the perfect mix of comedy and bizarre humor. My favorite TV show of all time, Twin Peaks, makes me laugh more than anything else.
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