Tristram Shandy a Cock and Bull Story - Less Cock Than Bull
| To get what’s going on in Tristram Shandy, a Cock and Bull Story one has to understand a couple of things. First there is the supposedly “unfilmable” novel narrated by the title character who, for the most part, remains unborn but focuses on the story of his loved ones. Second there is the ego of UK star, almost unknown on this side of the pond, Steve Coogan, an actor best known in the western hemisphere as starring with Jackie Chan in the poorly received Around the World in 80 Days remake.
Director Michael Winterbottom, whose work includes the very underwhelming 24 Hour Party People, The Claim, Wonderland and Welcome to Sarajevo, attempts to film the “unfilmable” novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. He does this by making a movie about the attempt to film the book which allows the cast and crew to discuss the novel, its implications and their own perceptions. Interesting idea and it mostly works except that egos get in the way.
First of all, Winterbottom has cast the remarkably handsome and relatively famous Jeremy Northam in the part of the director himself, distracting us from the whole film in a film conceit. Winterbottom actually looks much more like Tim Robbins than Northam but I guess he wanted to see himself in a certain light. Winterbottom as character played by Northam never is portrayed with any flaws so I guess we are just to be impressed with his knowledge of this book and film making as opposed to seeing him as character in the film he has cast himself in.
Then there is the ego of Steve Coogan who, in the film, is an actor playing the title character despite the non-presence of that character. Certainly this does lead to some existential fun, but mostly it’s an excuse for Coogan to create this persona he likes to exhibit of a remarkably likeable philandering yet charming ass. He runs around the set wondering why his heels are too short and trying to cheat on his far too beautiful wife while she looks after his new born child. Delightful.
There are moments where the whole thing works together, especially in the sequences containing Gillian Anderson who plays herself brought in as the filmmakers start to sell out and Hollywoodize the piece. There are moments throughout where the humour is very effective. It’s a sly, undergrad sort of humour with lines like “This is the first post-modern novel written in a time before there was anything modern to be post about.” There are also scenes of Coogan hanging upside down in a giant womb so that he can narrate the piece as the unborn baby. When the film is funny the film is funny.
But mostly, especially in the middle, the mess starts to bore. The story of Winterbottom and Coogan really isn’t very fascinating and I wished there had been more Shandy. In the end, Tristram Shandy is the kind of film that is probably more interesting to discuss than to actually watch.