Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story Movie Review

At one point during Michael Winterbottom's shambolically hilarious Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a film about trying to film the legendarily unfilmmable 18th century novel, Steve Coogan says to a reporter that the wonderful thing about Laurence Sterne's book (which he obviously hasn't read) is how ahead of its time it was, that it was "a postmodern novel... before there was a modernism... to be post of." It's a throwaway line in some respects, but it's an excellent example of the layered absurdist humor that abounds within its wonderfully loose format. This is a film about ego, the fatal inability of people to plan their lives, and the delirious chaos of the creative process. It's also about what utter jerks movie stars can be, God bless 'em.

Sterne's novel is a big old mess and has never been quite accepted in the literary canon. Published in nine installments over a decade, it's a subplot-mad, diversion-crazed bildungsroman where the narrator - Shandy - can't even get past describing his own birth by the end of the book, due to his tendency to go off on tangents. Along the way it packs in satires of contemporary intellectuals like Pope and Locke and plays with the novelistic form, including even having one page printed entirely black to represent sorrow at a character's death. They try that in the film, but then realize it's not quite so interesting for audience.

Coogan plays himself in this film, having been cast in the lead role, and at first we see him (sort of) in character, walking the audience through the set-up for Shandy's birth (he plays not only Shandy here but also Shandy's father, it's can all get quite tangled) and commenting liberally on everything going on. We're far from Winterbottom's verite stylings, used to such limited effect in 9 Songs, and much closer to the anarchic, third wall-busting joyousness of 24 Hour Party People, the film that wrote Coogan's ticket to Hollywood.

After setting the stage for us, Coogan is free to play more or less himself, the actor Coogan who has made it - to an extent - in Hollywood now and sees himself quite above this farcical, low-budget costume drama. To that end, he tries endlessly to berate and show up his costar (a riotous Rob Brydon), even forcing the costume department to modify his shoes to make him taller. The excellent Jeremy Northam and Ian Hart are on hand to play the director and screenwriter, neither of whom seem to be able to make much headway with reining in this sprawling book which is itself an ode to the unplannable chaos of life.

Amidst all the ever-so British embarrassment comedy and the backstage drama - Coogan's girlfriend and child are on set, though he's in the midst of a serious flirtation with a beautiful production assistant - there can actually be found some very smart commentary on the filmmaking process. As the creative team, actors, and financial backers watch footage and argue about the story, we see people wrestling not just with how to tell a story but trying to find out what the story even is, whether it's worth telling or if the whole endeavor is pointless.

None of these questions weigh down this swift piece of work for a second, however, showing that it's far from impossible to be thoughtful and provocative without sacrificing a sense of humor. Plus, Tristram Shandy includes a scene where Coogan is lowered upside-down into a massive, glistening pink artificial womb to deliver one of his monologues. Sterne would likely have approved.

Reviewed at the 2005 New York Film Festival.

More bull!


Comments

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2005

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