|Lowest Recommended Age:||High School|
|MPAA Rating:||Rated R for language and sexual content.|
|Movie Release Date:||2006|
|DVD Release Date:||2006|
When in the depths of winter the dregs of the cinematic year limp into theaters, some audiences long for the more cerebral fare of spring or fall. “Haven’t we seen this plot before?” becomes a common refrain and a movie like “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” feels like a sunny spring day come early, even if its unflattering brightness is not appealing to all.
This is a movie about making a movie based on an un-filmable book; however, the audience needs to know nothing about “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” the novel by Laurence Sterne (published in volumes from 1759 to 1767) to appreciate the film. Just as Clueless was a faithful to the tone and themes of Jane Austen’s Emma although the language and setting were utterly altered, “Tristram Shandy” the movie captures the ambition, isolation and vulnerability of the book’s eponymous center through the actor portraying him.
The book is a knotty, meandering yarn with copious digressions and post-modern flourishes like blank or black pages before there was a “modern” to be “post”. Framing his novel as a faithful autobiography, Sterne told the story of a man who could not figure out how to tell his own life story, hence a tale that jumps about from Tristram to his father to his uncle and ends up months before Tristram’s birth. The movie likewise jumps from Tristram (Steve Coogan) to Tristram’s father (Coogan, again) to Steve Coogan (Coogan), an actor trying to capture a character from a book he has never bothered to read. Coogan the actor plays Coogan the actor as he argues with the child playing Shandy as a child about how to perform his role.
Although it starts out as a brawny, mid-eighteenth century farce, the movie finds its pace in the modern day as “co-lead actors” Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing Tristram’s Uncle Toby) position themselves on the set with a natural humor and intimacy while they jostle for position in the story and in the movie.
Coogan throws a passive-aggressive snit about the height of his shoes while Brydon frets about the yellowness of his teeth. The attractive assistant, Jennie (Naomie Harris), who refers with passion to German Realism cinema and rails against the banality of battle scenes, evokes admiration and pompousness from Coogan, who is basking in any attention that she shines upon him. His flirtations are mildly curtailed when his girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly McDonald) and their baby show up for a brief visit.
The movie follows hurdles (will they get the funds they need to finish the film?) and distractions (is that inquisitive journalist going to reveal Coogan’s naughty shenanigans?) with a constantly moving camera, adding to the driven pace of the film and contrasting with its many moments of waiting and stillness. Because Coogan’s character is shown warts and all in his many shades of neediness, some audiences will not be bothered whether he lands on his feet, but his intelligent performance –well-framed by those of Brydon and McDonald— will win over those looking for the nuance and humor of this underappreciated British actor.
The overlapping story circles of the book, the actors and the production process for the movie could have made for a confusing mess, but in director Michael Winterbottom’s able hands the tempo, wit and robustness of the performances make the film feel alive if occasionally a bit overly precocious. Although it does not follow the book closely enough for time-constrained college kids to use it as a short cut to reading all nine volumes, this “Cock and Bull Story” will be the real Tristram Shandy for many.
Parents should know that there are mature themes throughout this movie and that the relationships between characters are complicated and dynamic. There is male and child nudity, a traumatic accident to a boy resulting in circumcision, a depiction of childbirth, an enormous model womb, and implicit sex between committed couples. Characters drink socially and refer to infidelity, unusual sex and impotence. Characters drink and refer to drug use. Strong language including British slang is used.
Families that see this movie might want to talk about the different characters depicted in the 18th century and how they mirror –- or not -— the actors who portray them. Does Coogan’s character develop over the length of the movie? If you think he changes, where do these changes come from?
Families that enjoy this movie might want to watch some other multi-layered movies about filming stories that correspond to the lives of the actors, such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Adaptation and other movies about making movies like State and Main, The Stunt Man, Sweet Liberty, and Day for Night. They will also enjoy Coogan’s performances in 24 Hour Party People (also directed by Winterbottom) and Coffee and Cigarettes.
Thanks to guest critic AME.