TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, David Walliams, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Kelly Macdonald, Gillian Anderson
MPAA Rating: (for language and sexual content)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 1/27/06 (limited); 2/17/06 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is not about telling a story as much as it is about the inability to tell a story, and in failing to tell its story, it gives us one nonetheless. Based on and inspired by but not so much based on or inspired by the highly regarded but little-read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, the film dabbles in period piece, insider comedy, and all-around oddity. From what we garner from the film, it is faithful to the source material not in text but in spirit. We hear the book was postmodern before there was any modernity to be post about, and so I suppose that makes the film post-postmodern or another such categorization for scholars to argue about. We also hear the novel is unfilmable. So how do you adapt an inadaptable work? Simple: You don't. Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce (working under the pseudonym Martin Hardy) have scripted a film that perhaps doesn't quite achieve a thematic impact, but it certainly has the structural juxtaposition of a group of people determined to reach a goal but never getting there. Because it doesn't get there. (Much like this paragraph.)
The film opens with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves as they get into makeup for a day on the set. Coogan slyly undermines Brydon, whose attempts to argue the equality of his character to Coogan's go by the wayside. Suddenly, the film switches to the 18th century, and Tristram Shandy (Coogan) begins to tell us his life story. Well, he begins to, but he has a lot more to set up first. First of all, he had a very peculiar circumcision, when a window fell on his, uh, privates while, uh, going number one out of said window, but this isn't anywhere nearly as bad as his uncle Toby (Brydon), who received a wound to the groin during the siege of Namur. Of course, everyone wants to hear where he received his injury, so he's made a scale model of the battlefield, stands in the proper place, and states with gusto to the curious party, "Here." Of course, this is getting ahead of himself, so Tristram also takes on the role of his father Walter, who timed his conjugal duties to coincide with the setting of the house's clock. But now I'm getting ahead of myself, because there's also the bit involving how it came about that Tristram was not born in London.
We get all of this as Tristram narrates to the camera, breaking the forth wall, but just at the moment it seems Tristram may actually get around to being born, the film breaks the fifth wall—if there is one. The film crew shows up in the background and the director yells "Cut." The crew starts on a set change while the actors discuss whether or not they should stay in costume. After all, Tristram's enlarged nose is a bit of a hassle to put on. Suddenly, the film switches gears and becomes the making of the movie of which we'd just gotten a taste. Anyone worth his stock, it seems, is a fan of Sterne's novel, which Coogan states was number eight on a list of the best books of all time—turns out the list was chronological—but only cineaste Jennie (Naomie Harris) and Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), it appears, have read the thing. Jennie is Coogan's on-set crush and Jenny the mother of his child. There's a scene in which Coogan sings his young son to sleep that mirrors a discussion in which the crew tries to figure out a way to make Walter's character more sympathetic. It's interesting, of course, because we learn not only is Coogan somewhat wooing Jennie but he also has some problems when a story about his activities with a prostitute make it out to the press.
Now I'm really getting ahead of myself, though. While the personal interaction between the cast and crew is familiar territory, a good deal of their discussions revolve around the art of filmmaking, which involves artistic compromises for the greater good of getting a larger audience appeal. The studio heads are concerned at the prospect of throwing out thousands of dollars to reshoot a particularly boring battle scene ("I'm leading tens of men."), until the movie's director (Jeremy Northam) suggests adding the Widow Wadman/Toby romantic subplot and casting Gillian Anderson as the female opposite. This gives Coogan and Brydon more to bicker about, since this makes Toby the central character and makes Brydon insanely nervous because of his attraction toward the actress. And there's a priceless visual gag in which Coogan practices his big birthing scene by being lowered upside-down into a large-scale womb. That fits in later into a dream sequence, too, but I digress. "Hardy's" screenplay also gives us the important thematic substance of the novel in question, because, like the majority of people on the set, very few people have probably read the book. So the film works on three primary levels: loose adaptation, behind-the-scenes comedy, and literary analysis.
The main thing is, for all its post-postmodern use of intersecting narratives, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story works and, in certain spots, works brilliantly. I find myself admiring it more from a distance than I did watching it. Perhaps part of the problem in the experience of viewing the film is that it's clear "Hardy" and Winterbottom, unlike Shandy and, to a lesser degree, Sterne, never want to "get there" in the first place. Or maybe that's the film's virtue.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.