Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Posted By on Wed, Mar 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Is there any genre British director Michael Winterbottom won't attempt? From social drama (Welcome to Sarajevo) to science fiction (Code 46) to hip comedy (24 Hour Party People) to erotica (9 Songs), Winterbottom has delivered modestly budgeted movies that may not necessarily succeed but always intrigue.

Thus, if anyone were to attempt an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 1760 novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, it would be the idiosyncratic Winterbottom. The book is a bawdy romp, featuring an endless series of tangents and digressions that derail the narrator, Tristram Shandy, from completely telling his life story. Cleverly, Winterbottom has emulated the book by making a film about making a film, often allowing his "real-life" characters to take humorous personal detours. Scenes from the novel mix with behind-the-scenes filming as actors play both themselves and characters from the story.

Much like the postmodern Adaptation, it's smartly structured and captures the source novel's self-conscious spirit. It's an ode to the unplanned chaos of life and art, the folly of egotism, and how movie stars can be complete assholes. It's also funny as hell.

Steve Coogan (playing himself, Shandy and Shandy's father, Walter) walks us through the story, acting within and behind the scenes while commenting on the action. It's a bit convoluted, but Coogan — who excels as a British version of Larry David — and his costars keep things spontaneous and entertaining. Especially good is Steve's prima donna obsession that costar Rob Brydon (playing both himself and Shandy's uncle) might be getting more screen time. Coogan and Brydon's chemistry is nothing short of brilliant. From their opening conversation about the color of Brydon's teeth (Tuscan sunset) to games of one-upmanship, every moment these two are together produces wickedly brittle exchanges that crackle with caustic wit.

Jeremy Northam and Ian Hart as the fictive director and screenwriter, respectively, perfectly capture the uninspired results that come from committee-style filmmaking. Gillian Anderson delivers a great send-up of herself in a cameo appearance, and Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) is charming as Coogan's comely assistant.

As the second half of the film focuses on the production's low-budget troubles and the stars' swelling egos, Winterbottom keeps things moving. There are some great gags — the best of which involves Coogan being inserted into a giant birth canal — and though some jokes miss the mark, the film never falls prey to the self-indulgence of most postmodern works. (Coogan makes the absurd observation that Tristram Shandy was "a postmodern novel before there was a modernism to be post of.")

It could be argued that Cock and Bull is just cinematic fluff — and the director not only acknowledges this but revels in it. He focuses on artists wrestling with how to tell a story they don't really understand and aren't sure is worth relating. Meanwhile, Coogan, as the film's official narrator, unintentionally reveals he's never actually read Tristram Shandy, illustrating the level of absurdity Winterbottom has committed himself to.

If you're a fan of 24 Hour Party People or BBC's The Office, this film is probably right up your alley — be sure to stick around for the final credits for Coogan and Brydon's hysterical dueling Al Pacino impersonations.

 

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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