Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story

dir: Michael Winterbottom
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Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story, is not really an adaptation of the novel by Laurence Sterne. Like Adaptation, which is not an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but a film about not being able to adapt The Orchid Thief, Tristam Shandy is more about people pretending to put on an adaptation of the novel rather than actually doing so. Whether budget constraints or the experimental desires of the director have resulted in this outcome, anyone wanting or expecting a faithful version will be sorely disappointed.

But it is a faithful adaptation of the spirit of the anarchic novel, which features the same kinds of digressions, blurrings of protagonist, author and story, and overall absurdly mundane madness.

Most of all, the flick is about Steven Coogan. And not about the ‘real’ Steve Coogan, but the character of Steve Coogan that he tends to play for shits and giggles, as the phrase goes. It’s a persona, it has to be. Coogan has gotten so much goddamn mileage from playing his smarmy character that if it’s really how he is, someone surely would have killed him by now.

Arrogant, pretentious, petty, insecure, vain: these are just a few words that have been used, in pairs or individually, to describe me over the years. Used all together, and you have the essence of the Coogan character. It’s the same character he played in 24 Hour Party People, except he was supposed to be playing Tony Wilson. It’s virtually the same character he played as Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You. You either find it hilarious or tiring. If you could stand him in any of the other stuff, or actually like him, then you’ll be prepared to ‘enjoy’ him here as the sort-of main guy.

Another point taken from the novel and wedged without lubricant into the movie is that life is chaotic and cannot be pinned down, that life doesn’t fit neatly into boxes or perfect narratives, and as such a novel or film shouldn’t be bound in such ways.

Michael Winterbottom decided years ago that he wasn’t going to make normal, linear films. So flicks like Butterfly Kiss, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, 9 Songs, and this one here show him to be a pretty cookiecutter-less director, uninterested in conformist cinema. Which I applaud him for.

That doesn’t mean his films always work. I can’t really tell you if I think Tristram Shandy works in the strict sense of the word, because it comes across as so much of a piss-take of the making of the flick that I can’t tell what’s real, what’s scripted and what’s improvised.

And it doesn’t matter. It means that I found the flick entertaining, but overall a bit of a soufflé; fluffy and non-filling, but nice every once in a while. Regardless of what it might sound like, it’s a very light, breezy flick which wanders all over the place in a way which looks anarchic but is actually well thought out. The film it most reminds me of is Fellini’s 8 1/2, which has a wildness to it representing the chaos of a director’s life (both the character and the actual director) all the while looking like a drunk walking a tightrope, who nevertheless keeps his balance whilst muttering loudly about his childhood.

Coogan is oh so vain and petty, and is a pretty funny man. I don’t know how much more mileage he will get out of playing himself, but it’s still champagne comedy for me up till now. Most of the flick is taken up with the machinations of Coogan’s life on the set of the film, and only a bit of it has him in character as both Tristram Shandy and his father Walter. All seems to be focussed around the birth of Tristram Shandy, and the curious sets of circumstances thereof, until the flick veers away and accounts for all of Coogan’s conflicts and confrontations whilst making the film.

In a moment of staggering self-referencing, there is a scene where Tony Wilson, the person whose life Coogan portrayed in 24 Hour,/b>, interviews Coogan about himself and the film. In another scene, a sleazy journalist tries to get an exclusive interview with Coogan instead of printing lurid tales of Coogan’s perverse exploits with an exotic dancer in a hotel room, based partially on actual gossip mag stuff about Coogan.

Coogan’s girlfriend Jenny (Kelly McDonald, who some might remember as the jailbait from Trainspotting) arrives at the set with their baby, fresh from the womb, and she wants sex. At the same time Coogan has the hots for his assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris), who keeps talking about Rainier Fassbinder and other flicks none of them have heard of, all the while wanting some of that magical Coogan DNA for herself.

Couple all that with Coogan’s egotistical pettiness aimed at his co-star Rob Brydon, his arguments with directors and costumers over needing to be taller than the other actors, production complications, unhappy historical recreationists, and investors who want battle scenes the producers can’t afford, Gillian ‘Scully’ Anderson and multiple scenes of men damaging their testicles, and you have a pretty bizarre concoction.

It would be next to impossible for me to convey to you a sense of whether the flick works or not, or whether you’ll find it entertaining or not. I couldn’t possible know. In the past I possessed telepathic abilities that allowed me to be able to know exactly how much or little each and every reader of my reviews would enjoy the films I was blathering on about. Alas, that ability seems to have abandoned me, at least since I started taking this tasty drug Haloperidol that the men in the nice white lab coats keep foisting upon me.

As I said, it’s entertainingly insane, but only for those kinds of sick people who find Steve Coogan genital-rupturingly funny, or like movies that pretend to be about the movie business.

Entertaining, but don’t kill yourself trying to get to the theatre

7 times I would have been happy to make babies with that assistant out of 10

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“That is a child actor, pretending to be me. I'll be able to play myself later. I think I could probably get away with being eighteen, nineteen. Until then, I'll be played by a series of child actors. This was the best of a bad bunch.” – Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story

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