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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A little cock, a little bull and a lot of fun."
5 stars

How to describe “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation (for lack of a better word) of a seemingly unfilmable 18th century novel so complicated and digressive that it has been described as a post-modern novel that just happened to be written before modernism itself came into being? Okay, imagine a hellacious and hilarious mash-up of “Barry Lyndon,” “Adaptation” and one of those DVD special features where the movie pauses to take you behind-the-scenes to see how everything was done in which Steve Coogan (a comedic icon in England and probably best known in these parts for being Jackie Chan’s co-star in “Around the World in 80 Days”) brutally skewers himself by playing a vain, shallow, glory-grubbing, potentially adulterous actor named “Steve Coogan” who is attempting to navigate the production of a film version of the seemingly unfilmable novel “Tristram Shandy.” All this and a womb with a view to boot and all of it unspools in a mere 94 minutes.

Okay, why don’t we try that again. “Tristram Shandy” is inspired by Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” a nine-volume novel that was an extended literary joke played on its readers–the story is so chock-full of the title character’s opinions, ideas, suggestions, digressions and backstories involving both himself and virtually everyone involved in his existence that it never quite gets around to telling the actual story of his life. (Imagine a cross between the longest shaggy-dog joke you’ve ever heard and the immortal Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck” and you have a mild grasp on the proceedings.) Rather than attempt a straightforward adaptation of the book–not that such a thing would be possible in the first place–the film instead tries to approximate the tone and approach of Sterne’s work: the film starts off looking like a conventional costume drama and almost immediately begins subverting itself by taking us behind the scenes of the film that we are supposedly watching. While the story deconstructs itself before our eyes, the behind-the-scenes tale does so as well–some performers people play themselves, some play fictional versions of real people (Jeremy Northam pops up as Winterbottom) while other actors play wholly fictional characters (Ian Hart briefly turns up as the screenwriter and Kelly MacDonald plays Coogan’s long-suffering wife) and the story that is being filmed winds up changing wildly as the production stumbles along–so much so, in fact, that Tristram is in danger of literally becoming a supporting character in what is ostensibly his story. Hopefully that cleared everything up for you.

To say any more would be pointless–if this description has intrigued you in any way, I wouldn’t want to blow any of the surprises in store and if it hasn’t, nothing I could say could possibly convince otherwise. All I will add is that the performances are hilarious (besides Coogan, there are strong supporting turns from Rob Brydon as his competitive co-star, Naomie Harris as the intellectual gofer (who may be the only person involved with the entire production who has actually read the book being filmed) and Gillian Anderson as an American actress named Gillian Anderson) and the screenplay by Martin Hardy (apparently a pseudonym for longtime Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Bryce) is an endlessly clever and funny series of diversions that miraculously never wears out its welcome. The result is a film that will be enormously appealing to fans of British costume dramas, fans of movies about the making of movies and devotees of the likes of Peter Greenaway and Charlie Kaufman, whose own attempts at deconstructionist cinema are clearly key influences on the proceedings.

More importantly, it confirms once and for all that Michael Winterbottom is not only one of the most prolific directors at work today (“Tristram Shandy” marks his 14th feature film since 1995 and a new one, “The Road to Guantanamo,” just had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival a few days ago) but one of the most intriguing as well. In that time, his wildly diverse output has included sturdy literary adaptations (“Jude” and “The Claim”), socially committed agitprop (“Welcome to Sarajevo” and “In This World”), an experiment in Godardian sci-fi (“Code 46"), an experiment surreal biopic (“24 Hour Party People”) and an experiment in art-porn (“9 Songs”). Not all of these films have been entirely successful (“9 Songs” is as inexplicable a film as has ever been made by a renowned director) but the ones that have worked (if you haven’t yet seen “The Claim” or “24 Hour Party People,” put them on your Netflix list pronto) are as good as anything being made anywhere in the world these days and “Tristram Shandy” is one of his best–it is an endlessly hilarious and inventive riff on the storytelling process and completests will be thrilled to note that yes, it even features both a cock and a bull.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12828&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/16/06 23:55:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/30/06 Elza Hudson This is drivel, boring and repetitive. 1 stars
8/24/06 Anthony Some brilliantly funny moments, but also quite self-indulgent and flat in places. 3 stars
3/01/06 Blutarsky Solid reviews, Kelly McDonald plays Coogan's g-friend, though. 5 stars
1/29/06 Laura Really good and very funny 4 stars
11/25/05 Sam Inglis Michael Winterbottom's most accessible film, probably his best as well 5 stars
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  27-Jan-2006 (R)
  DVD: 11-Jul-2006

  20-Jan-2006 (15)


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