March 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

A Cock and Bull Adaptation

Every film-goer has weaknesses that color their film-going choices. I have a surprising number of friends, for example, who got in line early for Saw II in October and Hostel in January -- for them, the golden winter and summer movie seasons are just lulls between horror films. Meanwhile, while I can't get too excited about today's more body-mutilating slasher flicks, I instead get amped for odd and eclectic bits of genre. Behind the scenes stories. Costume dramas. Post-modern comedy. Movies where dudes talk with British accents.

Needless to say, I've been excited for Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story for months. Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) directing Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) in a post-modern comedy about the adapting of an classic British novel into a feature film? Couldn't have done better if I'd ordered it out of a catalogue.

In preparation, I started to try and read The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy (the Laurence Sterne series of books upon which the story is based) online. The style isn't particularly dense, and the narrator's voice is sharp and pure; it's genuinely likable in short bursts. The long haul, though, is a hyperactive dash from subject to subject. It's not postmodern, it's modern in the Woody Allen/Husbands and Wives sense of the term, which means it rambles on a lot and doesn't seem to go anywhere in particular.

But, like I said, likable. Full of funny, well-observed bits, too:

Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock ? ---- Good G -- ! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, ---- Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?

However, after a few chapters I realized that most likely the movie would make great sport of how no one involved with the project had ever actually read the book. It's the easy joke, after all. Christopher Guest would orchestrate it into a crescendo of comedy. So why try to be any better than Christopher Guest.

But, going in semi-ignorant, expecting a genre-defying comedy… I found myself watching something entirely different.

I forget too often that the British education system actually makes their students read classic works of literature beyond Hamlet and Hamlet II: Horatio, Maybe It Is Your Fault After All; I'd also forgotten (and please, forgive me) that every British writer and director is not just like Ricky Gervais. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is decidedly uneven, veering wildly between entertainingly straight-up adaptation, rusty behind-the-scenes comedy, and jarringly personal character study. But it's fresh and smart, with scenes that truly surprised jaded ole me. See, I was expecting comedy. I wasn't expecting to be touched.

Steve Coogan plays himself playing Tristam Shandy, who (within the adaptation) plays his own father in scenes adapted from the novel with a decidedly modern flair. Joined by a veritable fleet of people-you-recognize-from-BBC-America (including Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Kelly MacDonald, Keeley Hawes, Ashley Jensen, and Elizabeth Berrington, some of whom play themselves playing characters, while others play fictional characters in the real world), we eventually pull back from the adaptation to see the scurrying about behind the scenes, as the production juggles script changes, budget over-runs, Steve Coogan's concern that Rob Brydon's shoes make him look taller, and a slightly bizarre cameo by Gillian Anderson.

There are clear comedy set pieces -- Coogan trying out the model womb from which he'll later be narrating, the dailies of a battle scene that cover everything except any actual combat. But the general tone is almost helpless, the sense of being trapped in layers that you can't fully conceive. It doesn't make for the most consistently
entertaining picture, but the risks that Winterbottom takes, avoiding the easy jokes in favor of deeper moments, are ultimately rewarding. I haven't been able to stop thinking about Coogan, waking up in the middle of the night to wander through the chaos of a fake battlefield, which the soldier extras and production crew have transformed into a surreal exercise in hedonism. He looks around, lost, unsure of where he is and where he's supposed to be. It's a moment that sticks.

As I said before, I'd forgotten how literate Britain can be -- which means that on the production of Tristam Shandy, Steve Coogan is the only person who hasn't read the actual book -- and thus has no idea what he's doing. Although a running joke throughout the course of the film is that Rob Brydon's part in the film slowly develops into a co-lead, the film ultimately rests on Coogan's trio of characters. Coogan-the-actor is status-obsessed and prone to making out with PAs, William Shandy is an obtuse intellectual, and Tristam Shandy spends the entire film narrating the story of his birth, without ever really being born. It's a challenging trio of performances, and they all seem to come from the same place -- men playing a role, never quite sure where the action is going. Unscripted.