Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (Picturehouse, R)

In a clever angle, Tristram Shandy becomes a film about the problems of filming an unfilmable story.

 

This is the kind of movie that simply gets better with age.

I have to admit, my knee-jerk reaction to it was, “Oh, brother. Another mockumentary about the film-making process.” Mockumentary is a style of which I’ve admittedly grown a little weary. I always get the feeling that the actors have had a far better time making the film than I usually have watching it.

It took me some time, therefore, to put those feelings aside and reflect on this movie, and in retrospect, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an extraordinarily well made film managing to flow seamlessly from the film of the book to the film of the filming of the book and back again to the former. The credit for this has to be given to director Michael Winterbottom, a talented filmmaker who, in many cases, has made films (The Claim, Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo) that have gone largely and sadly unseen by mainstream audiences. There seems to be a strong probability that his latest will meet a similar fate.

Part period piece, part mockumentary, Tristram Shandy begins with the main actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, getting into makeup and exchanging some obviously heavily improvised banter than sets up the antagonism between the two that will haunt the production further down the line. It also nicely sets the stage for the humor that is to follow. A portion regarding Brydon’s teeth had me laughing so hard I actually missed some of the rest of the exchange.

Then we are into the story, watching as the older Tristram narrates onscreen about his family and himself in younger days, and pointing out that he is actually getting ahead of himself because he is not even born yet. This sort of dance through time and place is what made many people over the years label the novel as “unfilmable.” But, in a clever angle on that exact problem, Tristram Shandy becomes a film about the problems of filming an unfilmable story.

What scenes should be included? What characters excluded? And most importantly to the egomaniacal Coogan, in a caricaturized performance of himself, how will it affect his screen time versus the rest of the actors’?

It is this last part that becomes the focus of the second half of the film, with Coogan constantly threatened by Brydon’s presence and choices, from everything to shoe height to coffee orders. And this is where the movie gets bogged down, for though it is an impressive exercise in improvisation and at times rather amusing, it all grows a bit tedious in the constant haranguing of cast and crew who almost all appear to be more interested in themselves than the production.

It all has the feeling of having been visited onscreen too many times before. From The Player to Living in Oblivion (a personal favorite), the problems of filmmaking have been examined over and over with no stone left unturned. Without fresh insights to offer into that world, that storyline becomes a bit stale.

Regardless, the film is still full of wonderful moments that are at times riotously funny and others that are quite touching, particularly a moment between Coogan and his infant child that is a wonderful reflection of some of the mistakes made by Tristram Shandy’s father in the novel. The actor, in a way, is learning from the character’s mistakes.

In the end, these parts unfortunately do not make up a particularly good whole, but those parts that are memorable remain with you long after the film is over. That alone may be reason enough to see it.

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