To fully appreciate Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, most viewers who haven't read the famous Laurence Stern novel upon which the film is loosely based, will at least need to have an idea of its concept. But I cannot envisage getting into this film with no foreknowledge of both the novel and Steve Coogan's irreverent brand of comedy.
The tone is light-hearted and witty, and the performances are very good, and the period induced first half is an absolute riot, but Michael Winterbottom's latest film might be a bit elitist for most, depending a little too much on parallels to the classic book's structure and the fashionable imprint of Coogan's celebrity. It all presupposes that you're part of the "in" club and familiar with the humor to actually get the joke.
Anyway, for those of us who appreciate films that impertinently skewer the classics of English Literature the Tristram Shandy is mostly a real treat. The film begins with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in makeup, arguing over the colour of Rob's teeth and whether Brydon's part is a "co-lead" or a supporting role.
Coogan is supposed to be the title character, which makes him, supposedly, the star of the picture, but as the story progresses, he becomes increasingly concerned that his star wattage is being taken away from him. But I digress - the first half of the movie involves Tristram's birth as the movie constantly flips backwards and forwards with his father (played by Coogan) trying to meticulously plan his conception, birth and life. Shirley Henderson does a marvelous turn here as a maid trying to get everyone to focus on the birth.
The movie then interrupts Sterne's narrative and switches to the story of the director (Jeremy Northam) shooting a film adaptation of the book, starring Coogan and Brydon. The production is plagued with problems - the period shoes aren't high enough, the costumes aren't quite the correct period, and there isn't enough money for the battle scenes.
The story ambles between scenes of the movie being shot, and scenes of the actors, director, writer, producers, wardrobe people and others involved in the production as they wrangle, flirt and drive each other crazy. Coogan is beset by a sycophantic journalist while being pressured to constantly attend to his lovely girlfriend Jenny (Kelly MacDonald), who has traveled to visit him over the weekend with their infant son.
Coogan's assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris) - a film nut and Fassbinder enthusiast - has a crush on him, and in one-instance, propositions him. The film is shot, then re-shot, with the costumers resorting to tears and the production assistants getting more frustrated and when the film is finally screened for a group of writers and producers, they all realize what a monumental failure they have on their hands.
Luckily American actress Gillian Anderson is available to save the day, and at the last moment gets hauled in for a romantic subplot playing the previously excised Widow Wadman. The film is very clever in its re-imagining of the novel and all the actors are superb with their improvisations and impeccable timing.
Depending on how you feel about Steve Coogan, you might find that his constant banter becomes a bit irritating after a while. Characters seem to come into the film, then leave at random never fully coming into focus. I would love to have seen much more of Gillian Anderson and Shirley Henderson - and even more of the sexy Jeremy Northam.
The film also employs various stylistic devices such split screens, sideswipes and closing irises and of course there's the film within a film concept which as been used before. As a film about the difficulty of making a film based on a book about the difficulty of writing a book, Tristram Shandy is pretty unique.
It's probably a bit of a stretch to call it one of the best movies of 2006 so far, but parts of it are entertaining and it certainly takes us though the coarse and stressed out tumult of the classics of literature and movie making, breaking down celebrity, and focusing on all the obsequious and the nastiness that goes along with it. Mike Leonard July 06.