Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s new film, ever so lightly based on Laurence Sterne’s late 18th century novel, is his best realized effort since 24 Hour Party People, which also starred Steve Coogan. Comedy, as often has been said, is far more difficult to realize successfully than tragedy. At least as demonstrated in Tristram, Winterbottom has the right touch.

The book, despite its century of origin, could be labeled the first post-modern novel, with its jumbled timeline, frequent digressions and often self-referential exposition. Winterbottom and screenwriter Martin Hardy (a frequent collaborator) have retained that tone, but not a whole lot of the novel ends up on the screen. The film is about the making of a film of Tristram and is far more a satire of the movie industry and its players than it is an attempt at a definitive translation of the novel.

Coogan plays Tristram (and Tristram’s father, Walter), as well as the actor, "Steve Coogan" who plays the roles in the film-within-a-film. Rob Brydon (another 24 Hour carryover) plays Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle who is obsessed with the recreation of of a military siege, as well as the actor, "Rob Brydon." The two, as actors, are competitive and jealous of one another, even to the point of Coogan making an issue over the height of the shoes they wear for the film.

The spoofed insecurities of "Steve Coogan" are set within the broader madness of the movie-making business, touching on the director (Jeremy Northam), the investors, the screenwriter, the camera crew, the agent, the press, costuming, makeup and the complexities of the personal relationships (and temptations) inevitable in the bustle and confusion of shooting on location.

A large proportion of the time actually allotted to the original Tristram tale tells the story of his birth–his mother wanted a midwife, but his father insisted on a doctor who seems nearly obsessed with a newfangled instrument called a forceps. Use of the latter explains theshape of the protagonist’s nose.

At one point there is a line to the effect, "Life is chaotic, amorphous. You can’t give it shape. Life is too full, too rich to be captured by art." Winterbottom almost disproves the point as he milks the details for very funny spoofing, keeping Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story blithe, brisk, and bouncy.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.