The film is divided into chapters, though the chapters themselves often contain several more-or-less unconnected sketches.
A group of elderly office clerks who work for the Permanent Assurance Company, a staid British insurance accountancy firm which has been taken over by The Very Big Corporation of America, rebel against their corporate masters when one of them is sacked. Having locked the surviving supervisors in a safe and thrown their boss out of a window on a makeshift plank, they commandeer their building and turn it into a galleon, sailing through London and attacking The Very Big Corporation of America's skyscraper using wooden file cabinets which have become transformed into carronades. With ropes, they then swing into a boardroom and engage their bosses in battle, vanquishing them.
After their hard-earned victory, the clerks continue to "sail the wide accountant-sea" as they sing in their heroic sea shanty until unceremoniously meeting their end by falling off the edge of the Earth.
Fish in a tank greet each other and notice that their fellow fish Howard is being eaten, prompting them to wonder what life is all about.
Part I: The Miracle of BirthEdit
They soon remember the patient and bring her to the table, turning away the husband and ensuring the patient to leave the work to the doctors. The hospital administrator enters, impressed with the doctors' work.
The administrator leaves and the doctors deliver the baby and leave the mother on her own.
The Miracle of Birth Part II: The Third WorldEdit
In Yorkshire, a Roman Catholic family can no longer afford to feed their 63 children because their religion forbids birth control, so they are forced to sell the children for medical experiments. The father explains his situation, leading to the musical number "Every Sperm is Sacred." The children try to suggest ways for their father to no longer be able to procreate, but he gives reasons against all of them and the children eave the home.
Watching the children leave, the Protestant neighbour next door lectures his wife on the their church's tolerance toward birth control that enables them to have intercourse for pleasure, although his frustrated wife points out that they never do.
Part II: Growth And LearningEdit
A group of religious schoolboys attend mass. Their teacher announces that two boys among them were found rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant. This, the cormorant is now off-limits to the boys. He then informs one of them that their mother died earlier that morning.
They then sing "Oh Lord, Please Don't Burn Us."
In a subsequent class, they go over a lesson about sex, particularly about foreplay. They then watch in boredom as their teacher demonstrates sexual intercourse with his wife.
Later, a rugby match occurs between students vs. teachers, the ending of which overtly compares sports to war, the teachers easily triumphing over the students.
Part III: Fighting Each OtherEdit
An officer attempts to rally his men to find cover during an attack. This is hindered by their insistence on celebrating his birthday, complete with presents, gift vouchers and a cake. His men are killed one-by one, leading into a lecture on the positive qualities of the military, and a drill sergeant leading his men marching up and down the square.
During the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War in Natal, a decimating attack by Zulus is dismissed in lieu of a far more pressing matter: one of the officers has had his leg stolen during the night. The military doctor hypothesizes that a tiger might be the perpetrator (despite the African setting). The scientific name that the doctor gives for the tiger is Felis horriblis, although the actual scientific name for the tiger is Panthera tigris. To recover the leg, a hunting party is formed, which later encounters two suspicious men in tiger suits who attempt (rather pathetically) to assert their innocence in the matter through a succession of increasingly feeble excuses as to why they are dressed as tigers.
The Middle of the FilmEdit
"The Middle Of The Film" is introduced by Gilliam dressed as a black man, and the viewer is invited to play (by Palin, in drag) "Find The Fish", in which a drag queen (Chapman), a gangly playboy (Jones), and an elephant-headed butler challenge the audience to 'find the fish' in an surreal scene shot in the operations floor at the former Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth, with a slight attempt at making it resemble a living room. Gilliam has said this sketch was intended to represent the strange dreams that one has. The elephant-headed butler is a creature from Gilliam's earlier film Time Bandits. The fish in the tank return briefly, praising the previous scene and commenting on the film so far.
Part IV: Middle AgeEdit
"Part IV: Middle Age" features a middle-aged couple taking a vacation to a bizarre resort (including Gilliam dressed in bizarre drag, and an authentic medieval dungeon with tropical music suggesting Hawaii). Having nothing to talk about, they order a conversation about the "meaning of life". Being apparently quite intellectually uncurious, they send it back, complaining "this conversation isn't very good."
Part V: Live Organ TransplantsEdit
In "Part V: Live Organ Transplants", two paramedics arrive at the doorstep of a card-carrying organ donor (Gilliam) to claim his liver, brutally disemboweling and killing him in the process. Later, a man in a pink suit (Idle) emerges from the refrigerator belonging to the 'donor's' wife (Jones) to sing her a song about the wonders of the universe, resulting in her realizing the futility of her existence and agreeing to one of the paramedics' request for her own liver. This is followed by an attempt by the "Crimson Permanent Assurance" to take over the film proper, which is dealt with by dropping a large skyscraperontheAssurance building.
Part VI: The Autumn YearsEdit
"Part VI: The Autumn Years", is introduced with a Noel Cowardesque fop (Idle) performing the song "Isn't It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?". Following this, Mr Creosote, an impossibly fat man (Jones), waddles into a decorous restaurant, swears at the host (Cleese), and Vomiting copiously, into buckets if available. He eats an enormous meal, and finally, after delivering the immortal line "Fuck off, I'm full!", is persuaded to eat one last wafer-thin mint, whereupon he explodes, showering the restaurant with offal. in rhyme, culminating with "I feel that life's a game, you sometimes win or lose / And though I may be down right now, at least I don't work for Jews". Her reward for this offensive comment is to have a bucket of vomit immediately dumped on her head by the nearby French waiter (Cleese), who then offers a profuse apology for her racism. The second is delivered by another French waiter (Idle), who leads the camera on a long walk through the streets to the house where he grew up, and delivers his personal philosophy: "The world is a beautiful place. You must try and make everyone happy, and bring peace and content with you everywhere you go. And so I became a waiter... well, it's not much of a philosophy I know, but well... fuck you, I can live my own life in my own way if I want to- fuck off."
Part VII: DeathEdit
"Part VII: Death" opens with a funeral setup. After this, we see Arthur Charles Herbert Runcie MacAdam Jarrett (Chapman), a criminal convicted of making gratuitous sexist references in a film, killed in a manner of his choosing: he is chased off a cliff by topless women in brightly-colored crash helmets (the fact that Chapman was openly gay adds irony to this). A brief animation of suicidal leaves falling off a tree leads into "Social Death", in which a group of people at an isolated country house are visited by the Grim Reaper (Cleese), who knocks on the door. When the host answers and sees the Reaper with an enormous scythe, he says, 'Is it about the hedge?' The dinner guests then spend a lot of time arguing with him before finally being persuaded to shuffle off their mortal coils. 'Heaven' turns out to be quite similar to the resort from Part IV. When they enter, the rest of the characters from the film (the Roman Catholic Children, the topless women, Mr Creosote, etc.) are already seated, and all are then serenaded by a Tom Jones-like lounge singer (Chapman) with the monumentally cheesy song "Christmas In Heaven", a parody of Las Vegas-style shows, complete with women wearing plastic breasts in Santa Claus outfits and a gleaming-toothed lounge singer telling all those present that in Heaven, it's Christmas every day, forever. (According to the DVD commentary, the women were supposed to be topless but one of them refused on the grounds that she thought her breasts were too small.)
The End of the FilmEdit
"The End Of The Film", in which Palin in drag (apparently the same character who hosted "The Middle of the Film") concludes the film by reading out 'the meaning of life' (introducing it by saying "It's nothing very special really"): "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
Finally, the film ends with part of the theme music and title sequence from Monty Python's Flying Circus on a TV set drifting off into space, before the "Galaxy Song" begins again, and plays over the end credits.
In order to persuade Universal Studios to make the film, the Pythons wrote a poem about the script, budget and content of the film. The poem being recited by Eric Idle is featured as the introduction to the film in the Special Edition DVD. During the title sequence, the title of the movie is first written on a stone tablet as 'The Meaning Of Liff', and is corrected by a lightning strike. Although this looks like an allusion to the humorous dictionary The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, released in the same year as the film, it is in fact a coincidence; the Pythons say they didn't know a book existed bearing that name, even though they were friendly with Adams. In the 1999 TV documentary, From Spam to Sperm: Monty Python's Greatest Hits, choreographer Arlene Phillips recalls working on the film, and in particular the Every Sperm is Sacred sequence, as "the very best time" of her professional career. As the members of the party at the end are following death Michael Palin's character says "Hey, I didn't eat the mousse" (referring to the salmon mousse that they died from). This is one of the rare moments in the Monty Python series in which a line of dialogue was improvised. The sketch "The Man Who Chose His Own Death" is scored to stock music that also appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil.
The film opened in North America on 31 March 1983. At 257 theatres, it grossed US$1,987,853 ($7,734 per screen) in its opening weekend. It played at 554 theatres at its widest point, and its total North American gross was US$14,929,552. In 2003, a 'Special Edition' DVDwasreleased, with director's commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries (both real and spoofed). The original tagline read "It took God six days to create the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up", but the length of the film is 107 minutes (the film only has a length of 90 minutes if The Crimson Permanent Assurance is counted separately). In the 2005 DVD release of the film, the tagline is corrected to read "It took God six days to create the Earth, and Monty Python just 1 hour and 48 minutes to screw it up.
The Meaning of Life was unexpectedly awarded the Grand Jury Prizeat the 1983 Cannes International Film Festival.
Censorship and ratingsEdit
Republic of Ireland banned the film on its original release, just as they had banned Monty Python's Life of Brian, but later rated it 15 when it was released on video. At the time, Ireland had banned a total of four films, of which Terry Jones had made three. In the United Kingdom, the film was rated 18 when released in the cinema and on its first release on video, but was re-rated 15 in 2000.
Popular culture references Edit
- In the video game Animal Crossing waking the seagull Gulliver will sometimes warrant the response "It was just one wafer-thin mint, but I was already so full! Ooh, my stomach... I'll never forgive that waiter!"
- The sketch "The Man Who Chose His Own Death" inspired Studio B's "I See Girls" video.
- In the movie Finding Nemo a stingray teacher swims towards his class, covers them all beneath his wings and then says 'I wonder where my class is gone'.
- The Crimson Permanent Assurance was originally conceived by Gilliam as a 6-minute animation sequence in the middle of the film (at the end of Part V), it was later expanded to a 16-minute live-action piece, to the point where it no longer fit into the framework of the film and became a pre-movie short film in its own right.
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