Wednesday, August 23, 2006
  DVD Review: Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

Existing as sort of a three-way head-on collision between This Is Spinal Tap, American Movie and Adaptation, Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an interesting and often enjoyable farce… although it never quite gets off the ground. It does, however, get a few laughs at the expense of the cast, the crew, the audience and the subject matter, and it's moments of flagrant self-congratulation are excusable. This is, after all, a film based on a novel that, by all accounts, can not be adapted to the screen. Even trying something this audacious is laudable, and for a fairly jaded film fan such as myself, there were a few delightful elements that made it all worth watching.

Here's the central contrivance: Laurence Sterne's comic 1759 novel The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen isn't so much a novel as it is a stream-of-consciousness meditation and series of run-on jokes about the futility of actually trying to write a novel. I've never actually read it, having assumed that it's probably more futile to read a book about little more than it's own futility than it is to write such a thing. I do know from reviews, however, that the novel begins before the birth of it's main character and, after a series of silly tangents, ends mere moments after his birth, having never gotten around to telling us anything about his life or opinions.

Could a device like that work anywhere other than on the page? Well, what the hell. Director Michael Winterbottom and his stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were willing to give it a go.

It might be useful for American audiences to know that Steve Coogan is the popular star of a hit BBC comedy and it's spin-offs in which he plays Alan Partridge, a television interviewer who's far more interested in himself than in any of the subjects of his interviews. Rob Brydon may be best known for his work on a BBC skit comedy program called Little Britain. During the course of Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, Coogan and Brydon constantly try to upstage one and other, both in character and out. Coogan plays a double lead role, both as Tristram Shandy and as his father Walter. Brydon plays Tristram's uncle and insists that he is really the second lead in the film, considering that he's ever present, either as Uncle Toby or as himself. Confusing? Yes, but not as much as it sounds. The movie makes it obvious when we're seeing actors mocking their characters, mocking exaggerated versions of themselves, or flatly mocking each other. It's easier to follow than you might think, and I have a feeling that the movie makers may be disappointed by that.

The movie tips it's hand along the way, revealing each of it's influences and, at times, paling in comparison. The Spinal Tap comparisons are unavoidable. There is, for instance, a giant model of a womb that Coogan finds himself stuck in. It'll be difficult for any movie fan to watch that scene without remembering Harry Schearer's malfunctioning rock-pod from Spinal Tap. An early scene at make-up features a conversation between Coogan and Brydon that plays like a condensed version of the many back-stage Tap scenes. All that was missing was a deli tray with some small slices of rye bread for the actors to struggle with. Even an elaborate and significant model of a battlefield reminded me of nothing so much as Ian Faith's notorious ten-inch Stonehenge.

Tristram Shandy wasn't quite up to Adaptation's standards, either, although that comparison might simply be unfair. When it comes to brave, original, funny scripts that break all the rules, nobody can compare to Adaptation's writer and primary character, Charlie Kaufman. Adaptation is a movie about the futility of trying to write a screenplay , and it's probably closer to the spirit and style of Tristram Shandy's source material than this movie itself quite gets. Not that I can say that for sure, having never read the novel. What I can say for sure is that Charlie Kaufman's invention of a fictional twin brother in Adaptation served as a far better and more seamless way to blur the line between fiction and pseudo-fact than the devices used here. Tristram Shandy blurs that line simply by having the actors come out of character; by having the camera follow them into their real lives. Or, at least, into the version of their real lives that's been contrived for this film.

And while the comparisons to American Movie are obvious, they're really disingenuous. After all, even though American Movie is one of the funniest movies of all time, it is a real documentary about real moviemakers who really are incompetently trying to make a real movie. The painful laughs in American Movie really are painful. The painful laughs in Tristram Shandy are, when you get right down to it, fraudulent.

So, no, it doesn't work flawlessly. There are, in fact, several long, dry periods without a single laugh. I have to admit, though, that the laughs that do come are big and undeniable. As derivative as the scene involving the giant womb was, it was still damned funny. The exchanges between Coogan and Brydon generally work, too… mostly because the two actors seem to have a real screen chemistry. Smaller roles for Stephen Fry, Gilian Anderson and the luminous Naomie Harris were nice, too. I was especially happy to see Fry show up in the movie. With Fry and Laurie and Blackadder on his resume, he's perhaps the best pedigreed Britcom performer in the whole mix.

Is Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story worth buying on DVD? Nah. There are a great many better movies at better prices out there to pick from. It's worth a rental, though, on one of those nights when you just can't find anything else to watch. It's different enough and funny enough to justify five bucks and an hour and a half of your time… even if it's laughs are blatantly derivative and even if it's differences are vaguely familiar.



 
Comments:
I tried watching this movie a few weeks ago and just couldn't make it past the first 30 minutes. I was bored out of my skull. Glad you got some enjoyment out of it.
 
I'm constantly surprised that people actually buy DVDs---then I go on Amazon and spend megabucks buying classics. And TV shows. And movies I've loved.
 
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