If you know anything about Monty Python, you know the style of humor that any given project will have before you even sit down to watch it. It's bizarre wordplay combined with slapstick, silly costumes, and the occasional catchy tune. What you don't know is whether or not you'll get a cohesive project. The Meaning of Life is not a cohesive project from a narrative standpoint. It is a series of sketches thrown together with a framing device of exploring the cycle of life. Except when it's breaking the fourth wall and commenting on its own creation. Then it's just plain bizarre. There is a charm to the film that is hard to get down on even if it ultimately falls short of the satirical examination of life.
In its most brilliant moments, The Meaning of Life is funny, smart, and touching. Take for instance, the comparison of birth in rich and poor areas of the world. The rich area sees a hospital staff willing to hook a pregnant woman up to every device known to man to impress their boss. The poor area sees a baby born while the woman is working in the kitchen. The rich area is clinical and uncaring; the poor area is willing to burst into a huge choreographed song and dance number about needing to give up all of their children. The scenes work individually as comic sketches and then even better when juxtaposed against each other.
The rich/poor comparisons actually run throughout the film, though they become more of a recurring gag than a narrative thrust. A vacationing couple enters a restaurant for their once a year trip, only to be completely lost at their options for dinner conversation (presented on a menu, naturally). In spite of their confusion, they are nice, polite, and endearing to everyone they interact with. A little later in the film, a rich over-fed man orders everything on a menu at a different restaurant without a second thought. He's brutish, disgusting, and self-absorbed. There's even a juxtaposition of army sequences, where the soldiers in a rich British neighborhood are given leave to go to the movies while the poorer soldiers actually fighting in the battlefield die grisly deaths as their superiors are waited on hand and foot. The trappings of the rich/poor comparisons are an old form of comedy, but they are used to great effect here.
It's hard to find fault with a film that casts such a wide net of comedy. While I might not personally have cared for the bulk of the organ harvesting scene, other people might think it's the funniest scene in the film. When the only variation in laughter comes not from quality of performance, design, or execution but from content, a film like this has succeeded.
If there is a flaw in The Meaning of Life, it's that the Monty Python actors did not take full advantage of their theme and framing device. Yes, there are recurring elements riffed on throughout. Those, however, are a more true link between the various comedy scenes than the quest for the meaning of life. The lack of connection to the title might even be the point. When the troupe reveal their interpretation of life's great answer, it is very much based in the morals of the scenes in the film. It's just the scenes in the film don't always correlate so nicely with the solution. Breaking the film down by age and life events is a strong choice. It would just have been stronger if the sketches always derived directly from the title cards.
With all of that sad, The Meaning of Life may actually be my favorite Monty Python film. It lacks the narrative thrust of Life of Brian and the consistency of The Holy Grail, but what it has is a great tone. The film is dark and funny and makes great use of each of the players in the troupe. The final dinner party sequence might be one of the tightest and most arresting examples of black humor I've ever seen. This is the kind of film you invite a few friends over to watch with you before heading out for the night. It's just plain fun.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.