Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Cast:
Steve Coogan as Tristram Shandy/Walter Shandy
Rob Brydon as Captain Toby Shandy
Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Shandy
Gillian Anderson as Widow Wadman
Shirley Henderson as Susannah
Kelly Macdonald as Jenny
Naomie Harris as Jennie
Dylan Moran as Dr. Slop
Jeremy Northam as Director
Stephen Fry as Parson Yorick
Ronni Ancona as Anita
David Walliams as Curate
Elizabeth Berrington as Debbie
James Fleet as Producer
Ian Hart as Writer
Ashley Jensen as Lindsay
Paul Kynman as Obadiah
Kieran O’Brien as Gary Wilson
Jenny Ogilvie as Sandy
Stephen Rodrick as Himself – New York Times reporter
Raymond Waring as Corporal Trim
Mark Williams as Ingoldsby
Stuart Wilson as The Sound Recordist
Greg Wise as Greg
Benedict Wong as Ed

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Summary:
Ingenious and genuinely funny, “Tristam Shandy” breaks down the fourth wall, and then proceeds to knock down the other three. The handful of people who’ve been anxiously awaiting a straight adaptation of Sterne’s work may want to stop reading here.

Story:
An adaptation of Lawrence Stern’s 18th Century tome “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” is compromised by the verbal sparring by its two leads (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) and the backstage shenanigans of the cast and crew.

Analysis:
Director Michael Winterbottom has once again shifted gears, leaving behind his controversial porn-musical “9 Songs” to reunite with his “24 Hour Party People” star Steve Coogan for a very different kind of comedy. Taking its cues from the resurgence of period comedies like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Casanova,” it starts out as a faithful adaptation of the encyclopedic 18th Century novel, before giving up the ghost and following the off-set lives of the crew and actors, which ultimately, is far more interesting.

Those expecting lavish costumes or set pieces or scenes of gala balls may be a bit thrown off by this minimalist period piece. It’s more about the comedy of errors that makes up the unfortunate life of Tristram Shandy, who narrates the piece by addressing the audience directly. The indignities Shandy suffered started from his very birth, but our first introduction to him as a young boy is when he experiences a traumatic circumcision via window will that’s probably as painful for the audience. Like the films of Peter Greenaway, Tristam’s story jumps back and forth in time, as our narrator interrupts and then backtracks.

Thankfully, we’re spared the full brunt of his grueling birth at the hands of an inept doctor with a scary pair of forceps when the director calls “Cut!” and the workday ends for the actors on this production. Suddenly, we’re watching a completely different film, a fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes following the film’s star Steve Coogan in his off-time, doing interviews with the press, and desperately trying to find time to spend with his girlfriend and newborn son who are visiting the set. This is where the film really starts to get going, as we witness Coogan’s self-deprecating humor at its finest. He squabbles with long-time friend and co-star Rob Brydon, Tristram’s Uncle Toby in the production, over screen time, lines and even the height of their shoe heels, as they try to one-up each other, which finally explains the film’s quizzical prologue of the two actors sitting in make-up discussing the color of Brydon’s teeth. Meanwhile, the director and writer are having trouble figuring out how to make this complicated shambles of a book into a movie, trying to convince the financers to let them reshoot the shoddy battle scenes.

The clever script by Martin Hardy–actually a pseudonym for Winterbottom and his frequent collaborator Frank Cottrell Bryce–is masterfully blended with improvisations from the actors to place it amongst the best movies-within-a-movie, an oft-neglected genre highlighted by fine examples like Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep” and Charlie Kaufman’s decision to write himself into “Adaptation.” Like the best of them, the seams between fiction and reality are often blurred, making it unclear whether you’re really watching Steve Coogan’s life unfold in front of our eyes.

The tagline that Steve Coogan is about to play “the role of his life” is not an exaggeration, but it’s not the dual role of Tristram and his father Walter Shandy that defines the movie. Although Coogan doesn’t exactly play himself in a very complimentary manner–he seems clueless about the book they’re adapting–it allows us a slightly shaded window into the soul of the actor who found so much added notoriety after his last movie with Winterbottom. The genius in Coogan’s performance is that he still comes across as likeable and sympathetic despite exaggerating the vanities and ego we might expect from a movie star. He also willingly takes on the role of straight man to his friend Rob Brydon, playing the role of a tagalong friend riding on Coogan’s more successful coattails. It gets even more amusing when Brydon suddenly finds himself having a larger part in the movie when Coogan inadvertently suggests exploring another aspect of Sterne’s novel. The duo play off each other like a great Vaudeville act or some of the best onscreen comedy teams; make sure to stick around for the end credits to watch Coogan and Brydon perform “Dueling Pacinos.”

Besides the two co-leads, Winterbottom has assembled an amazing cast, including Naomie Harris from “28 Days Later” as the know-it-all film school graduate assistant who has a tryst with Coogan, Kelly MacDonald (“Trainspotting”) as his patient and understanding girlfriend, and Gillian Anderson, as the production’s new addition who shows up on set with almost no urging or negotiation. Even Stephen Fry makes a very brief cameo, but the real treat is when the real Tony Wilson, who Coogan played in “24 Hour Party People,” shows up to interview the star for the film’s ubiquitous DVD extras, which are likely to be just as amusing and confusing.

The humor ranges from madcap silliness in the Python vein with Coogan being fitted into a giant oversized womb–don’t even ask!– to more subtle and esoteric humor that might fly by too fast for some to catch. The more poignant scenes offer some of the film’s best ironies, as Coogan is taken away from time spent with his “real” son to meet the baby that will play his character in the movie. Other funny and far too real moments include one where Harris’ character tries to impress the director and producer with her vast knowledge of cinema, only to be given odd looks. For those willing to wait for small but clever gems like that, it’s a rich and satisfying experience.

The Bottom Line:
Those expecting a straight period costume comedy may be confused and disappointed, but if you’re a fan of British comedy, this entire movie will give you something to smile and chuckle about. Certainly the more you know about Coogan and the making and financing of films, the more you’ll get out of this brilliant film.

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