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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story Review

By Shawn McKenzie 03/19/2006

When I saw Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story over a month or so ago, I liked it.  It was quirky, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it was funny and it fit within the spirit of the goal that they were trying to reach…which is to attempt to film an adaptation of the “un-filmable” novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  When the Denver theatrical release date came a little bit closer, I ran into a few people who had seen the public pre-screenings, and none of them liked it.  Normally, I usually agree with the majority of the general public, because I feel like I am one of the only critics who actually likes movies, whether they are “popcorn-style” or “award-winning,” but I am going out on a limb here and say that I still didn’t think that it was that bad.

Sometime in the 18th Century, Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan) is the narrator attempting to tell the story of his life…but he never seems to get beyond the story of his own birth.  While his Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon), with his friend Corporal Trim (Raymond Waring), recreates the 1695 siege of Namur, where Toby suffered an embarrassing injury to his manhood, Tristan’s father Walter (also Steve Coogan) is trying to control every detail of his son’s birth.  From conception with his wife, Elizabeth (Keeley Hawes), where he winds the clock before doing it, to waiting for the blessed event while Elizabeth’s servant Susannah (Shirley Henderson), along with the midwife (Mary Healey), tends to her, Walter tries to control everything.  This includes trying out a new delivery device known as the forceps on her with her doctor, Dr. Slop (Dylan Moran), and Walter’s assistant, Obadiah (Paul Kenyon.)  They test the forceps on a melon, which destroys it, but they try a little softer approach, and the doctor still manages to break baby Tristram’s nose.  Just as we are getting to know these fictional characters, the actors portraying them are featured…all playing mostly real versions of themselves while filming this adaptation of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  Aside from the actors, the crew consists of director Mark (Jeremy Northam), producer Simon (James Fleet), and screenwriter Joe (Ian Hart.)  For Steve, he has other concerns, like wanting to appear taller than Rob does with the insistence of lifts in his shoes, which becomes a headache for the movie’s continuity.  In fact, the rivalry between Steve and Rob is hilarious in terms of who can grab more screen time.  At one point, Mark insists on using a big name Hollywood star to play the Widow Wadman in a love story with Rob, since Joe has gotten rid of a battle sequence that was not very good (and looked very low-budget) and replaced it with the love story.  He calls Joanna (Sara Stewart), the agent of former “X-Files” star Gillian Anderson (playing herself), and amazingly, and coincidentally, the star is in the office and is willing to fly out the next day to play the part.  This adds fuel to the Steve/Rob rivalry, because Steve realizes that the inclusion of Gillian will give Rob a bigger part.  Things are going bad for Steve in his personal life as well.  He is flirting with an attractive production assistant named Jennie (Naomie Harris), when his girlfriend and mother of his child, also named Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), arrives for a short visit, bringing their infant son, Steve Jr.  They don’t get much time together, because Steve is constantly having to do things like test out a fake, human-size prop womb and watch film dailies.  Also, he is being followed around by Stephen Rodrick (playing himself), a New York Times reporter, who wants to ask him about a recent lap-dancing incident (a real incident that has appeared recently in the British tabloids.)  If Tristram can ever get around to his life after his birth, and if Steve can resolve his personal problems, maybe this adaptation may be a success.  With all of the jumping around in story order, it’s not likely.

Director Michael Winterbottom has made many movies and TV shows in the last 20 years, but the only other project of his I’ve seen is 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, which also starred Coogan, Brydon, and Henderson.  That was a trippy, yet funny, movie.  Both movies are similar in being self-referential, but this movie was a little less trippy (though it was still weird.)  What Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (credited as Martin Hardy, who took his real name off the script in order to split from the director) have done is make a movie about the making of a movie, based on a novel that is about the making of a novel.

It is an interesting idea to do in order to get over the hurdle of adapting a novel that can’t be adapted in the normal way, but the thing that most audiences will have to realize is that the novel itself isn’t linear.  I, along with most of the cast and crew, have never read the book (something that is a running joke in the movie), and so they are just flying blind, which is how Sterne wanted it.  Since I had read up on this unusual attempt on adapting the novel, which had been published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, I understood what Winterbottom and company were trying to do.  I think that might be why the preview audiences weren’t as crazy about it…since they had no foreknowledge of the Sterne structure.

It also didn’t help matters that the mostly British cast were actors who were famous to Brits, but not to Americans.  Coogan’s biggest fame in America was in the 2004 Disney movie Around the World in 80 Days…a movie that didn’t exactly set the world on fire.  In Britain, he is best known as the fictional character Alan Partridge on various different TV shows.  Aside from this movie, 24 Hour Party People, 80 Days, and last year’s Happy Endings, I haven’t seen much of Coogan’s work, including his many works as Partridge.  I can somewhat understand the type of character he was going for when he was playing a high-maintenance star, based on his own rumored personality, but American audiences won’t get the joke.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is just that…a bunch of bull.  If you aren’t in on the joke, you won’t enjoy the film.  Since I was somewhat in on it, I enjoyed it much more than my fellow moviegoers.  I normally don’t recommend that moviegoers do research when they watch a movie, since it shouldn’t be needed in order to be enjoyed, but in the case of this particular movie, you might want to do that.


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