There’s no joy in Montyville tonight. First came the recent death of Monty Python troupe member Graham Chapman; now there’s the release of the sadly moribund “Erik the Viking” (citywide), which makes idle use of the talents of Pythonites Terry Jones and John Cleese as well as such frequent collaborators as composer Neil Innes. Post-mortem to follow.
Jones wrote, directed and took a small role in which he has given himself some of the movie’s unfunniest lines. “Erik” was purportedly his dream project, but it’s more like a paying audience’s nightmare--a stillborn comedy in which minutes sometimes mysteriously go by between even attempted gags, and in which virtually no comic scene works up to any kind of viable punch line or payoff.
Berobed and baffled, Tim Robbins founders in the underdeveloped title role. His character--vaguely heroic, a little clumsy--is set up in a pre-credit sequence (the movie’s funniest) as a first-time plunderer who tries and fails to rape a young woman and then falls in love with her before skewering her by mistake. Erik’s properly barbaric Viking dad, played in a cameo by Mickey Rooney, approves of his son’s accidental method of dealing with contentious women: “That’s my boy!”
It’s downhill from there as Erik consults with earth-mama Eartha Kitt (in another of the movie’s many cameos) for cosmic advice, learning that a trip to Valhalla, land of the dead, might land him the Grail-like horn that would awaken the gods, conclude the Ice Age and maybe even end all human savagery. Pacifistic motives aside, Erik also would like to visit the afterlife to bring back the girlfriend he so quickly impaled in Scene 1. But she is irretrievable, and so is the film’s sense of wit.
This is the cinema of cruelty, waxing outrage at the mindless violence of the millennia and bemusement at the banalities of history--all proper black-comic Python fodder, to be sure. It’s also the kind of territory well-mined in movies by former partner Terry Gilliam, whose brilliant “Adventures of Baron Munchausen” bears many resemblances to this--all the way down to nearly identical scenes in the two movies in which giant sea monsters are made to sneeze away ships with actor Charles McKeown aboard! (You’d think McKeown surely must have warned Gilliam or Jones.)
But similarities aside, there’s no confusing the 1989 work of the two Terrys: “Erik” is as consistently unamusing as “Munchausen” was magical. Jones isn’t a visionary like Gilliam, and his fantasy sequences, in which the Vikings sail over the edge of the world, fall flat as the Earth from which they departed. So do about nine out of 10 jokes.
As a primitive judge who has his prisoners begging for execution rather than torture, Cleese plays his sadistic part with mild-mannered restraint and, though he’s hardly trying, may be the best thing about the picture; he’s also only in it for about two minutes.
As the quest finally nears Valhalla, one character intones, gravely, “We’re going where only the dead have gone before"--a sentiment likely to be echoed in many theaters where “Erik the Viking” (MPAA-rated PG-13 for violence and language) unspools to an eerie hush. Requiescat in pace .