Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a rollicking, inventive adaptation of the classic 18th Century comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. A well-known though not necessarily widely read masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a bawdy romp that plays with the techniques and conventions of the novel; its autobiographical speaker is prone to narrative excursions, direct addresses to the reader, and other eccentricities that make his tale anything but linear. Winterbottom (In This World, 24 Hour Party People) multiplies Sterne's conceit to tell two stories: that of an 18th Century Englishman, Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan); and that of the hapless 21st Century filmmakers who are adapting the notoriously unfilmable work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with "Steve Coogan" (Coogan) in the title role. Slyly acknowledging public fascination with the movie industry, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story strolls onto a modern film set, complete with insecure actors, scandal-hunting reporters, and balky investors. As it follows the fortunes of two families--one blood, one professional--the film makes us privy to calamities, crises, and flirtations that transcend centuries.
I've never really been a fan of the whole "movie about making movies" genre, or of films that go out of their way to break the fourth wall in the name of trite comedy. And seeing as how it falls under both categories, I can't honestly say sitting through Tristram Shandy was tops on my list of movie experiences. Still, I managed to find a few positive elements in this unconventional adaptation of the supposedly "unfilmable" novel, and I submit them for your approval:
Actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have a comical chemistry together that finds them constantly slinging backhanded barbs at one another. The two play exaggerated versions of themselves, and at times, their competitiveness gets downright catty.
Gillian Anderson also plays a caricature of herself as the American actress who gets involved in the fictitious film's production midstream. I found the circumstances of her casting in the movie within the movie particularly funny. The filmmakers dial up her people, and she happens to be right there in her agent's office, apparently sitting around waiting for work to fall into her lap. Her automatic reaction of "being a huge fan of the book" is also amusing.
During the film's closing credits, Coogan and Brydon square off in a battle of who can do the best Al Pacino impression--and as everyone knows, Pacino impressions are comic gold. Brydon takes an interesting approach in his mimicry by unexpectedly referencing Pacino's The Merchant of Venice role ("Shylock...is my name..."). Good stuff. Incidentally, the impression is one of the things we talk about in our Interview with Rob Brydon...