Exploiting our Archives: Monty Python's Death at the Box-Office case file #91: Absolutely Anything
Few light comedies are as weighed down by tragedy as Terry Jones’ ill-fated science-fiction romp Absolutely Anything. The 2015 British flop was released in Great Britain a year after Robin Williams, who provides a voice of a horny, biscuit-loving talking dog in it, shocked and saddened the world by committing suicide.
By the time the movie was quietly released on DVD in the United States in June of this year—some two years following its release in Great Britain and three years after Williams’ death—co-writer, director and bit-player Terry Jones had gone public with his battle with a form of dementia.
You’d have to go back to the release of the ironically named They All Laughed to find a goofy comedy with such a bummer of a backstory. They All Laughed is, of course, the 1981 light comedy that Peter Bogdanovich spent much of his own fortune getting theatrically released in hopes that audiences might enjoy an innocent chuckle at his cinematic valentine to his soulmate Dorothy Stratten, who had been brutally murdered by her enraged ex-husband by the time the movie hit theaters, then vanished almost instantly.
They All Laughed was going to be a tough sell under any circumstance. Throw in a high-profile killing chronicled in Bob Fosse’s gritty, brutal biopic Star 80 and the movie never a had chance. On a similar note, Williams’ death and Jones’ dementia diagnosis both cast very dark, long shadows over what should be a goofy, giddy lark but to be honest, I’m not sure Absolutely Anything could ever have succeeded.
Sometimes legendary artists and creators like Terry Jones (or Michael Palin, or John Cleese or any of the living Pythons) aren’t able to get scripts made because the film industry, and show-business in general, is fickle, youth-obsessed, cruel, shallow and brutally indifferent to the legacies and emotions of older artists. And sometimes legendary artists aren’t able to get projects made because all of that is true but also their projects are terrible and don’t deserve to be made.
Absolutely Anything is such a muddle that even though the movie obviously got made, and with all of the surviving Pythons contributing voiceover as malevolent space aliens and Robin Williams voicing a dog no less, it still somehow feels like the project never really got off the ground. This is one of the rare instances when having a script be rejected by everyone would be vastly preferable to a screenplay like Absolutely Anything getting made in the form that it did.
The disappointments never stop with Absolutely Anything but they begin with the film’s most ballyhooed element—all the living Pythons working together on a film for the first time since 1983’s Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. The film's premise involves an assemblage of very unpleasant aliens, voiced by the surviving members of Monty Python, who go through the galaxy destroying civilizations for being primitive and unworthy. These aliens don't have much screen time, but they don't have much in the way of jokes or character or personality either. They're just sneering, poorly designed bad guys who seem wholly disconnected from the shenanigans on Earth they're directly and indirectly causing.
Earth ends up on the evil alien's radar so to test whether or not earthlings are good or bad the aliens give ultimate power to bumbling everyman Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg) to see whether the planet's worth saving or should be zapped like all the others. Pegg is an incredibly talented writer and character actor who is fantastic in the films of Edgar Wright and entertaining in the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises but when the material is bad, he comes off less like a lovable everyman than a schmuck.
Like How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Hector and the Search for Happiness and Kill Me Three Times, this showcases Pegg at his worst. I’m not sure anyone could have done much with the role of Neil Clarke, bland teacher turned bland Man-God by the twisted machinations of the universe.
The movie establishes Neil as a thoroughly generic cinematic lead. He has a generic job in teaching, nurses generic, unrealized ambitions to be a great writer, has a generic crush on a generic love interest and somehow manages to become an all-powerful creature of seemingly limitless abilities while still remaining generic and anonymous.
Absolutely Anything feels very, very cheap, like they decided to scale everything back to the bare basics, and made the cheapest, simplest version of this story that they possibly could, even if that meant making Robin Williams’ final screen performance as a dog who “talks” in ways that make A Talking Cat!?! look impossibly sophisticated and convincing by comparison.
But it’s not just the lack of production values, amateurish special effects and 1990s-level computer animation that are depressing. Special effects and cinematic technology have come a long way in the last few decades. Absolutely Anything takes them back, almost all the way, to Jazz Singer days, and I'm not talking the Neil Diamond version.
The film’s paucity of imagination is even more dispiriting. Jones can go anywhere with this kooky, wildly derivative premise. Instead, he’s made the kind of movie where a man suddenly blessed with unimaginable powers makes his dick bigger and pursues the cute neighbor he has a crush on, Catherine West (Kate Beckinsale).
To be specific, he tells the universe, “Let me have a penis that women find exciting” and when that wish is granted, he clarifies, “Can I have it in white?” That is as edgy as the film gets. Otherwise it feels like a flavorless cross between a workplace romantic comedy and Tripping the Rift.
The film’s sensibility is less Monty Python’s Flying Circus than Bruce Almighty with a British accent and a crazily overqualified cast that includes Joanna Lumley as Catherine’s boss, a bibliophobe who channels her hatred of authors and the literary world into a scathingly negative television show about books and Eddie Izzard as Neil’s boss.
Absolutely Anything doesn’t just feel suspiciously like Bruce Almighty. It feels suspiciously similar to just about everything. Its premise alternately suggests The Monkey’s Paw, Groundhog Day, the classic Twilight Zone episodes “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “It’s A Good Life” and the fucking Look Who’s Talking sequels with the talking dogs but it fails to improve on any of its inspirations.
When Neil is grudgingly making miracles happen with the flick of a wrist, I kept thinking of Samantha and her magical twitching nose on Bewitched. And when Neil embarks on his wishing spree I kept being reminded of the dreadful Harold Ramis-directed remake of Bedazzled that substituted the classic comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore with the even more classic comedy team of Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley.
Hell, when its bumbling protagonist is unconsciously sabotaging himself with the imprecise nature of his wishes, it feels more than a little like the famously dreadful little-girl-robot sitcom Small Wonder.
There are jokes that stand out in the mind because they’re so funny and jokes that stand out because they are so terrible, so clumsy, so ham-fisted, so tortured in their logic and deadly in their execution that they stick with you long after they fail to make you laugh. Absolutely Anything has a lot of the second kind of joke.
For example, Neil, during his stumbling early experiments with his newfound powers, tells the universe/aliens/God that he wants the body “of a great man.” That’s an incredibly clumsy turn of phrase. With the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson, great men are generally defined by their intellect or their accomplishments, not by their physique, although I’m pretty sure the cosmos could have at least gleaned what he meant.
Sure enough, when Neal makes that tortuously worded request he instantly has the body of Albert Einstein, a great man, to be sure, but not someone whose physique people would necessarily want to emulate. Neil of course meant he wanted a “great body” and then wishes for one using that precise terminology but by that point I’d already rolled my eyes, groaned audibly and hurled my laptop against the wall in irritation. That kind of gag, clumsy, strained and barely comprehensible, let alone funny, is the rule rather than the exception here.
Neil’s wishes have a way of backfiring in a predictable, Monkey’s Paw kind of way, leading him to get annoyed and irritated by his FUCKING GOD-LIKE SUPER-POWERS almost instantly. And if the movie’s hero seems bored and over his ability to make anything happen just by wishing for it out loud and flicking his wrist, then why should we care?
In the universe where Absolutely Anything isn’t a total loss, a crushing disappointment, it’d offer a mix of the fantastical and banal out of early Steven Spielberg or Douglas Adams. Instead, it depicts the word of earthlings as a forgettable big-screen sitcom intermittently interrupted by appearances from some of the shittiest, most disappointing aliens this side of Mac (of Mac & Me) and Jar Jar Binks.
I’d love to think that when the comedy legends in Monty Python recorded their parts the old collaborative and competitive juices started flowing and they battled endlessly to upstage and outwit one another. Judging by the utterly forgettable performances they deliver here, however, it seems more likely that they each read their lines once, exactly as written, whether the lines made sense or not, then went straight home to complain to their spouses about how awful the movie was sure to be.
A lot of the outer space dialogue consists of aliens explaining the plot to each other in ways that somehow don’t make things any less confusing. In superior science fiction and fantasy, the rules are clearly and coherently established early on, so that imaginative universes are grounded in a concrete reality.
Absolutely Anything is so confused and confusing that at one point an alien tells another, “I thought our galactic powers meant we could do anything!” If the goddamn movie itself doesn’t seem to know or care about what the aliens’ galactic powers entail, why the hell should we?
Neil’s dog does not begin talking in the voice of Robin Williams until the film is half-over and much of his role involves Catherine overhearing the dog gush about humping Neil’s leg and assuming, understandably, that the voice she can’t hear is coming from a man in a sexual relationship with Neil and not a dog miraculously given the power of speech by aliens and the man-God who owns him.
Beckinsale is a big, big star obviously excited to be working with so many legends but the film beefs up her role substantially without building her up beyond an arbitrary, obligatory love interest. Absolutely Anything runs a mere eighty-five minutes and takes place partially in distant space and partially on an Earth where the rules of reality have been completely re-written, and yet it somehow imagines that it’s necessary to give its female lead not one, not two, but three suitors competing for her romantically, including Rob Riggle as the movie’s villain, a dumb, boorish American who wants to abuse Neil’s seemingly amazing, but actually kinda shitty powers for his own boorish American ends.
There are so many different ways Jones could have gone with this premise, many of them not terrible. Unfortunately, Jones chose the one that devotes a fair amount of its endless-seeming 85 minute runtime to its protagonist clearing up an elaborate misunderstanding wherein his love interest erroneously assumed he was a homosexual because of the seemingly lascivious comments of his talking dog.
The endless promise of Jones’ hopelessly muddled, underachieving science-fiction comedy is that, as its title conveys, it can be absolutely anything. Jones has written himself a blank check to get as crazy and fantastical and out there and surreal as he’d like. The crushing tragedy of Jones’ movie is that despite all its promising elements, it’s really not much of anything at all.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure