A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #16



2006, R, 91 mins.

Tristram Shandy/Walter Shandy: Steve Coogan / Toby Shandy/Rob: Rob Brydon / Widow Wadman/Gillian: Gillian Anderson / Elizabeth Shandy/Keeley: Keeley Hawes / Susannah/Shirley: Shirley Henderson / Mark: Jeremy Northam

Directed by Michael Winterbottom / Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Winterbottom / Based on the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. by Laurence Sterne

“TRISTAM SHANDY was post-modern before modernism was even posted.”


It's been many a moon since I've been privy to such an unapologetic howlfest like the wonderfully titled TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY.  It surely is the funniest film that I have sat through since last year’s 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN

Having said that, the two films could not be any more different.  Whereas the Steve Carell headlined film was a raunchy - yet oddly sweet and sentimental - R-rated bawdy comedy, TRISTRAM SHANDY is a remarkably layered absurdist work that throws in just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.  The film, by simple descriptions, is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE meets THIS IS SPINAL TAP, but it also manages to be a comic vehicle where nothing is left to the imagination. 

This wickedly droll masterpiece finds laughs in just about everything, whether it be found in endless literary references, German avant-garde cinema, the aesthetic of making movies in general, the acting techniques of Al Pacino, and – yes – Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the latter being the subject matter of a movie within a movie that is attempting to adapt the book.  Yet, make no mistake about it, this film is one odd mixture that made me laugh hard and laugh often.  Only the Brits could come up with something so utterly bizarre and daft.

It has been said that Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY is a literary work that's so dense that it is completely “unfilmable.”  If one alone looks at the stats of this story, then there should be no doubt of this assertion.  It was published in a mammoth nine volumes, the first two in 1760 and the final seven over the course of the next ten years after that.  To many, the work today is seen as a well-orchestrated bit of post modern, self-consciously droll writing that has a cagey drollness that hits the right buttons.  Others, much more openly, have alluded to the work’s less than admirable traits (John Updike, perhaps both humorously and sarcastically, stated that this was the one book he wanted to get through before he died). 

According to my very own research (I will most likely never take credit for reading Sterne's collective work), the book has a unique story that is narrated by Shandy and begins at his moment of conception and then sharply diverts into endless interruptions (stories within stories) and is punctuated by the nature of how Shandy can't ever be certain of the world around him, much less himself.  From a literary standpoint, it has been said that the book broke many story-telling rules, like disjointed chorological order, unfinished anecdotes, as well as beyond-peculiar devices (some pages are left entirely blank). 

I guess the most noticeable aspect of the book that I derived is that – despite its title – it never really was altogether interested in telling a story of Tristram himself.  It did – after all – begin with his birth and got so bloody sidetracked along the way that it ended moments after his birth.  It is highly appropriate that TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY gets the same level of procrastinating motivation from the book.  What better way to make a film adaptation of a book about procrastinating than to make the film about filmmakers procrastinating getting the adaptation of the book completed?

That’s the overall comedic hook to the film.  The joke is that Sterne’s work would never, ever work as a film, so this makes it all the more painfully funny to see a film crew try to make heads or tails of the book…period.  If the novel can’t logically be made into a commercial film, director Michael Winterbottom has done the nest best thing – he has made a mockumentary style film that chronicles a fake film crew as they attempt to adapt TRISTRAM SHANDY into a film.  An appropriate title for the film – in retrospect – would have been MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE if another series did not already have that lucrative trademark.

Yet, Winterbottom’s film cannot – in any way – be seen as a work of conventional farce and satire.  It’s just too plain…well…weird for that narrow label.  It’s a film within a film, to be sure, but much like its source material it weaves and interweaves from the moments in the novel to moments behind the scenes of the makers trying to recreate the novel.  At the hilarious heart of it all is a pretentious film crew trying to make a piece of art out of a literary work that has been described as equally pretentious.  The whole film kind of reminded me of the inner struggles of screenwriter Charlie Kauffman, as portrayed by Nicolas Cage in ADAPTATION.  In that film he desperately tried to adapt a book that was also deemed unfilmable.  There were moments in that film of intense writer’s block where his creative energies were curtailed.  I mean…c’mon…how was he to write a screenplay about a book that was essentially about flowers?  TRISTRAM SHANDY has the same level of a nonsensical dilemma.  The people behind the camera often don’t seem to have a clue as to how to make Sterne’s prose work.

TRISTRAM SHANDY is all over the narrative map…and then some.  It sort of spirals in and out of control to the point where you really have no idea whether it will stay within the parameters of the story of the novel or of the story of the filmmakers who are trying to adapt the novel.  What makes the film an ultimate, sure-fire subversive triumph is it’s overwhelming tone.  TRISTRAM SHANDY is cheeky, sly, irrepressible self-referential, and a side-splittingly spot-on lampooning of the whole filmmaking process.  The film is ingeniously maddening.  Sometimes you don’t know whether to scream in frustration at its lack of coherence or laugh out loud.  I must confess…I did a hell of lot more of the latter.

The film ostensibly takes place on the set of the film of TRISTRAM SHANDY and involves real actors playing their real counterparts.  I essence, we have the likes of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (this year’s brilliant cinematic comic duo) playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.  Both of these actors take their craft and respective roles ever so seriously.  They are competitive…perhaps a bit too competitive.  In one of the funniest scenes in a long time, the two argue about how one may or may not have channeled the dramatic energy of Al Pacino's work as Shylock in their performance.  One says he was using Young Pacino, whereas the other thinks it’s a Pacino of a decidedly older vintage.   They also manage to have some heart-to-heart and honest discussions, which also divulge some of their insecurities with acting.  When Brydon realizes that the producers have nabbed X-File star Gillian Anderson as his love interest in the film, he confides in Coogan that he can’t possibly act with Anderson and not blush.  When Coogan inquires as to why, Drydon matter-of-factly responds that he has a “sexual thing” for her.

The guffaws don’t end here.  There is a brilliantly realized moment of narcissist comic energy to be found in an early scene where the two are at their make-up chairs and frivolously argue as to who has the bigger, more significant roll.  Oh, they also bicker as to whether Drydon’s teeth are too yellow.  Coogan undeniably is the lead (he plays both Tristram, his father and Tristram's fetus in the womb) whereas Drydon play’s Tristram’s uncle.  Of course, Drydon agrees that he has an all-important “co-lead” to the lead actor.  His character of the uncle is quite inspired.  He devotes most of his existence making model battlefields of the real setting where he suffered a painful and awkward wound in an area that – let’s just say – could damage any man’s spunk.  On the level, Winterbottom's film title is a lot more literal than you may otherwise think.

The two continue their rivalry on and off camera.  Coogan - not wanting to play second fiddle to the “co-lead” - ensures that the prop department makes his shoes with lifts so he will appear physically taller.  The production has many other terrible woes, not to mention the battle footage, which is so ridiculously under budget that Coogan hilariously deadpans – while watching the dailies – that it looks like he’s leading a pack of the ten’s, not thousands.  To make the daily grind of shooting even more troublesome, a pesky interviewer for the tabloids shows up on set with knowledge of a lap dancer that gave Coogan a visit one night on the set of a past film.  Not wanting to have this story see any airtime, Coogan agrees to let the writer in on his new relationship with his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) and her new baby.  What the interviewer and Jenny don’t know is that Coogan has sort of began an affair with a cute production assistant named Jennie (Naomi Harris).  She is attractive, perhaps so attractive that any man would fall for her even after she gives a verbal dissertation on the meaning behind some of the scenes of "Lancelot du Lac", a German New Wave film. 

Perhaps TRISTRAM SHANDY is a work of such a perverted and rollicking vivaciousness that it's no wonder that a British eye for comedy could have made it work so judiciously.  The film marks an interesting diversion for Winterbottom, whose previous films, like JUDE, WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, and WONDERLAND, were much more serious in examination.  Here, he allows his stars (who play themselves) to let their own egos be put on screen for scornful ridicule.  The results are kind of refreshing in how unfiltered and frank they are. 

Coogan needs to be given serious credit for being an awfully great sport by allowing himself to be the victim of many satiric jabs with a venomous bite (he’s essentially shown as a diva figure that won’t allow himself that painful designation).  Coogan, along with the other performers, relish in the material in the sense of how mercilessly hilarious it is to see good, sensible people be overwhelmed by material that is so overwrought that their efforts to infuse significance in it inspires more laughter than proud appraisal.  It’s kind of a exasperating experience watching these men and women try to do justice to a literary work that many feel does not need to be vindicated, but perhaps that is what’s so endearing about the film.  It’s a work that constantly amuses us with its indulgences.  There is a strong level of arrogance and self-delusion among the participants in the film that is utterly infectious, especially during the one of the film’s more uproariously funny moments where a naked Coogan has to play opposite a giant womb.  "What?  I have to get naked in that thing," asks a highly distracted Coogan at one point.

Make no mistake about it, TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY is a contagious riot of a comedy; a film that has the power to take on a widespread cult appeal of the early film works of Monty Python.  It has a diabolical silliness and intelligence with its approach and execution and has a goofy and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek vibe through and through.  You most certainly do not have to be familiar with the original literary work that the film within the film adapts to enjoy this British farce, perhaps because the makers don’t have much exposure to it either.   TRISTRAM SHANDY is scathingly and masterfully droll, not to mention a well-pointed and intuitive satire about how agonizing the esoteric filmmaking process can be allowed to drag itself out to inane lengths.  This is a pure, zany, unconventional, and imaginative delight. 

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