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By cock and bull
on 19 March 2007
The classic novel by Laurence Sterne is best described in this movie: "This is a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about."
So it sounded pretty disastrous that a film was being adapted from it. Actually, half a film -- the other film is a mockumentary about a film crew desperaately trying to make some kind of movie, out of a book with way too much material. It's wickedly clever, but there's too little Tristram Shandy and too much about the shoes.
While his mother is in labor, a grown Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan) narrates the backdrop of his life -- his awkward conception, the farcical circumstances of his birth, early penile injury, his uncle's obsessions and (ahem) war wounds, and the circumstances of being named Tristram (and not Trismegistus, which is even worse).
But then we cut to the real world, where a film crew is filming the whole thing. Star Steve Coogan (himself) and director Michael Winterbottom (Jeremy Northam) are struggling to make this novel as true to the spirit of Stern's book as possible. The problem is, there's WAY too much material, and everyone wants different aspects -- love story, battle, his own character -- to stand out as the MAIN part of the story. Will the movie be funny? A sell-out? A big confusing mess?
Filming an unfilmable book is usually either going to be a disaster or a masterpiece -- for the latter, look at "Lord of the Rings." But "Tristram Shandy" hovers somewhere in the middle, courtesy of its mockumentary storyline, and some pointed mockery of the studio bigwigs.
Basically, the bigwigs interfere and insist on stars -- such as Gillian Anderson, who barely makes it to the final cut -- and hoard money, because the movie is too quirky for their tastes. Meanwhile, the stars quibble about minutiae (like shoe height), and real-life director Michael Winterbottom deliberately blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, letting one seep into another. And it has Coogan in a giant plastic womb.
And there's an extra kudos for the dialogue. Half of it is deliciously witty modern stuff ("The thing is, I can't act..." "I know that." "... with Gillian Anderson. I have a proper sexual thing for Gillian Anderson. I covet her"), but there's a whole different style for Tristram. He tends to have these faux-serious metafictional monologues, which end up being very funny ("That is a child actor, pretending to be me. I'll be able to play myself later").
The problem? Well, there's too much of Coogan and not enough Shandy, especially in the second half. It would have improved the movie dramatically to cut some of this stuff about Coogan flirting with Jennie out, because it's really quite dull compared to Tristram. When the fantasy/reality starts leaning too heavily into reality, the movie starts sagging. Big time.
Coogan does a pretty good job playing himself, but he's much better as Tristram/Walter -- arch, wry and kind of inconsiderate. Rob Brydon is enormous fun as himself/Toby, and Naomie Harris is fairly good as a movie nut who specializes in arty German cinema, and not much else. Anderson isn't in the movie for long, but her "equipment" scene is gutsplittingly funny.
"Tristram Shandy - A Cock and Bull Story" is a very funny film, but one bogged down by too much reality (and Coogan). Entertaining, witty and strange.