review: tristram shandy

July 25, 2006

Halfway through his commentary for director Michael Winterbottom’s recent film Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, actor Steve Coogan wryly notes, “you know, if you don’t think about [the film] too much, it’s actually rather clever.” I disagree. Even under close scrutiny, this endlessly self-referential film is one of the most genuinely amusing films in a long, long while. It’s quintessentially British, like the novel from which it is adapted, and as such its jokes run counter to many American comedic sensibilities, but no matter; fans of “inside showbiz” shows like Extras and The Larry Sanders Show and literature devotees alike will revel in the glorious absurdity of Mr. Winterbottom’s achievement.

Laurence Stern’s 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has been rightly called “unfilmable” because of its wildly experimental style and meandering narrative of British nobleman Tristram Shandy’s attempts to relate his life’s story; “it was postmodern before there was any modernism to be post about,” as Coogan tells us. So, rather than attempt the impossible, Mr. Winterbottom does something even more amazing, creating a “meta-film” about a “meta-book”. For the first half, we’re treated to British comedian Coogan, playing a grown Tristram, telling in fits and starts the tale of his own birth, which involves a “fine brass instrument,” a broken nose, lots of screaming, and more than a few bawdy jokes. At the same time, Coogan plays Tristram’s father Walter, who is managing (badly) the impending birth of his son; the attendant character shifts (from Tristram to Walter and back again) are a fine showcase for Coogan’s comedic talents.

Just as the birth finally takes place, actor Jeremy Northam, as fictional director “Mark”, yells “Cut!” and the camera pans to reveal that we are on the set of an attempted adaptation of Tristram Shandy, the novel. The actors we’ve been watching now fall into other characters, in many cases caricatures of themselves. Coogan becomes selfish and insecure actor “Steve Coogan” (let’s call him “Steve”), flirting with a production assistant (Naomie Harris), neglecting his visiting girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and infant son, and worrying about the height of his shoes in comparison to co-star (and fellow comedian) Rob Brydon–who, naturally, plays “Rob Brydon”–with whom he is competing for top billing.

The production itself isn’t going well, either: the low budget action scenes aren’t “exciting” enough for the producers, leading to long nights of expensive re-shoots, and director Mark brings in American–er…Canadian–movie star “Gillian Anderson” (Gillian Anderson) to bump up the star power (Rob has a “thing” for her, as it turns out). Coogan in particular is a tremendously good sport through it all, mercilessly skewering himself and his livelihood for the sake of satire. And it works.

Against all odds, this film about making a film about making a film about a book that’s about writing a book–there’s another meta-level towards the end–is an unqualified success, being a meditation on the book’s themes rather than a direct adaptation. The tricks that Mr. Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce play with narrative structure and flow can certainly be confusing, but then that’s the point. Shandy, the novel and the film, is about the ineffability of life; Shandy never does get around to telling us his story, but in his attempts he reveals even more than he perhaps intended about himself and the world he inhabits. Watching Steve and Rob argue endlessly over the end credits about who has the better Al Pacino impression, I’d say Mr. Winterbottom and his actors are spot on.

The DVD special features deserve special mention, being nearly essential to full enjoyment of the film. First, and most notably, the aforementioned commentary features Coogan and Brydon trading inane banter for nearly the entire feature (they begin by claiming that they recorded the commentary while naked for the sake of “trust”). Not to be missed are Coogan’s Woody Allen impression and the pair’s repeated listing of “all the directors we’d like to work with” just in case any of them is listening (they include Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, and Martin Scorsese). There are a few substantive insights as well, if that wasn’t enough to entice you.

The three deleted scenes and various scene extensions are just as raucous as anything in the film, particularly one in which the actors toss the newborn “baby” around in a ridiculously abusive fashion. Finally, there’s an extended version of Steve’s (that’s “Steve”) interview with producer Anthony Wilson (Tony Wilson, whom Coogan played in Mr. Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People) that is also appropriately outrageous.

Would that more people had seen this gem while it was still in theatres; it made just $3.1m worldwide. Thankfully, the magic of DVD can allow millions more to see this criminally under-viewed film. It’s just wonderful.

Corrections (7/28): It was “Steve” who had the line about the book being “postmodern before there was any modernism to be post about”. The producers, rather than the investors, were the ones upset about the battle scenes. These changes have been incorporated above.

–D. S. W.


2 Responses to “review: tristram shandy”

  1. Jonathan Coveney said

    If this movie is quintessentially British, the sentence

    The DVD special features deserve special mention, being nearly essential to full enjoyment of the film.

    is quintessentially you, David.

  2. […] I have long been looking forward to it, both because of Ms. Coppola’s amazing success in her first film Lost in Translation and because of the eclectic ensemble cast headlined by Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman (as Louis XVI) and also featuring, among others, the delightful Steve Coogan, of Tristram Shandy and 24 Hour Party People, and veteran character actor Rip Torn. The film opens wide next Friday, October the 20th, and you can count on a review from me shortly thereafter.  Do go see it yourself as well, won’t you? […]

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