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Not the Messiah (2010)

by on 2010/08/24

Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones once compared the comedic process with Browning’s approach to poetic metaphor.  Effective comedy he defined as two disparate ideas which, when brought together, form not a new idea but a laugh.  His definition stuck with me, and is a reasonably good analogy for my love of mashups.  In fact I gravitate toward them with such an oft-rewarded glee that it’s frankly stunning to discover an unsuccessful one.  Not the Messiah, I am genuinely sorry to report, is just such a mashup.  It simply doesn’t work.  In fact it more than malfunctions.  It is a misfire of bourgeois pretension so catastrophically baroque, so excessively decadent, and so transparently self-indulgent . . . well, it’s some kind of artistic punishment that it survived long enough to be realized.

Not the Messiah is essentially the story of Monty Python’s Life of Brian set to the music of Handel’s Messiah.  If you’re unfamiliar with Life of Brian then you may not understand this review, which is appropriate given you likely won’t understand Not the Messiah either.  That the latter presupposes knowledge of the former is just one of its many missteps.  If you are familiar with the source material then you’ll probably spend the duration wishing you were watching that instead.

Honestly, who is the audience for this performance?  I can scarcely imagine hard-core opera fans enjoying this venture.  Conversely, I could only retroactively pity the Gumbified occupants of the front rows as they settled in for the clearly-anticipated Second Coming of Python.  Their wrong-headed assumption must have cost them a fortune at today’s ticket prices.

This oddball variety show hobbles along on an uneven base of styles — doo-wop, folk, march, mariachi, and Welsh miners’ chorus — all coexisting uneasily within the dominant opera.  Many songs, especially early on, seem to draw upon the Monty Python song “Spam” for inspiration.  When lyrical meter cannot be bent to the will of a rhyme, no matter how awkwardly forced, the fallback seems to be “rely on a single word or phrase, repeated over and over, ad nauseum“.  The numbers featuring “chaos/confusion”, “fire”, “sheep”, and “woe” are a few such examples.  This approach is repeated to the extent that one wonders if the lyricist simply created one refrain per song, and spread it too thin, repeating selected fragments as punctuation.

Audience sentiment was mixed, though it can be difficult to know for sure, particularly on home video.  The subtitles, like a laugh-track for the visually impaired, assured me that the audience was applauding and laughing at the expected moments, though I rarely heard or saw such activity when indicated.  Perhaps those were the moments Not the Messiah’s creators hoped for such feedback.  How do we know the audience was not just unrecorded?  Because they raucously react to those jokes lifted in full from Brian.  Their involvement was doubtless on the producers’ minds.  Those present were obviously prop-seeded.  Such gimmicky trinkets must have seemed the only way to ensure an overt response to a new would-be Rocky Horror Show.

Other ways to elicit reaction included plenty of “surprise” guest stars.  If Not the Messiah has a trump card, the cameos are it.  This gathering functions as the nearest we may come to a Monty Python reunion without conducting a seance.  Of the original members, only John Cleese and the late Graham Chapman are absent.  Even oft-unsung heroes Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes are present.  Michael Palin is a particular standout in a variety of  roles, though the potential of both Terry Gilliam and Neil Innes is largely squandered.  Terry Jones falls somewhere in between, entertaining but leaving us wanting more.  In truth — when I first heard about the performance — I lamented its Cleese-lessness but, after the fact, I feel less upset.  Whether he was unavoidably occupied or simply uninterested, his participation would have served only to tick the reunion check-box.  I doubt even his considerable gifts could have redeemed this farce.

Given that the entire affair is Python of a sort, driven by Eric Idle, and a marriage of timeless music with a brilliant film, I desperately want to give it a pass.  But I know to the core of my disappointed soul that I’d be suffering the most acute delusion to profess my enjoyment of it.  It’s the nadir of sheer vacant vanity.  (My only comfort in having purchased it is that I hope good sales will encourage a video release of Spamalot, Idle’s musical take on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)  Standing in sharp contrast to Monty Python: Almost the Truth — a recent (and excellent) documentary — Not the Messiah is almost painful, a piece of absolute self-flattery run amok.

* *

Rated PG for suggestive material and language

91 minutes

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