Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (IMDB) is one of the best literary adaptations I’ve seen in some time [Edited to add: It’s also one of the funniest]. But before I review Winterbottom’s film adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s wildly inventive metafictional novel, I should probably explain that because I majored in literature in college and have an MA in English, I’m usually ambivalent about literary adaptations. Then again, I should probably mention that before I was born, both of my parents were strongly discouraged if not explicitly prohibited from watching movies, which may explain my own enthusiasm for film. I could perhaps go back further in time or obsessively return to the moment of my birth, but then this review would never get written, and I would be unable to explain that, like Dana Stevens, I regard Winterbottom’s Shandy as one of the most “faithful” adaptations I’ve seen in some time, to the spirit if not the letter of its literary source, especially when the film, like Sterne’s novel, pursues its uneccesary digressions and its own narration.

In general expectations for literary adaptations set viewers up for disappointment, especially if you’re a fan of the novel. Key scenes are deleted. Characters disappear completely. And costumes or settings are inauthentic. Winterbottom’s Shandy nicely satirizes this culture of adaptation, in part by turning Steve Coogan, the lead actor in a film adaptation of Shandy, into the main character of the film. Coogan, the character, is narcissistic and competes with fellow actor Rob Brydon, who plays Tristram’s Unce Toby. Coogan obsesses over his costumes, specifically worrying about how his fake nose will alter his appearance, and more importantly, that his heels don’t provide him with an appropriate height advantage over his co-star, Rob, while Coogan’s character also worries about who will receive top billing for the film (of course, this is familiar territory for Coogan who also plays himself in a sketch in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes).

Winterbottom weaves between these “backstage scenes” and the attempts to make a film version of Shandy quite nicely, and what Winterbottom achieves with his film is nothing less than a meditation not simply on the possibilities of adapting the impossible but on the filmmaking process itself. Unlike Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which never really goes beyond the production of the screenplay itself, Shandy traces the entire moviemaking process, perhaps making it more comparable to French Lieutenant’s Woman, Truffaut’s Day for Night, or maybe The Player. We see the enthusiastic assistant, Jennie (Naomie Harris), gushing about Fassbinder and other German directors the “talent” pretend to know (of course,as Klawans implies, the Fassbinder allusions might run a little deeper). Later the director learns that he can film a key battle scene when Gillian Anderson agrees to appear in the film, therefore assuring more financing for the film, setting up a subtle economic commentary on how films get made (these scenes reminded me of Fellini’s comment, “And the film will be finished when there is no more money left”).

While I’m thinking about it, I should probably go back and mention Uncle Toby’s mysterious battle injury and young Tristram’s unintentional circumcision. But that might interrupt my review, so I should return to that topic later. Of course Winterbottom milks the “cock and bull” jokes as much as possible and to nice effect. Although James Berardinelli worries that Winterbottom seems “obsessed with cock,” the film’s obsessive returns to Uncle Toby’s unspeakable war injury work quite well.

Some of the film’s best scenes trade on Coogan’s willingness to parody his image as a narcisstic actor, with Coogan constantly getting into petty squabbles with his co-stars and dealing with members of the tabloid press that want to report an unsavory story about this one night with a stripper. Coogan’s character also bickers with his agent, dismissing a preposterous script that might tarnish his image. It’s a nice commentary on the ways in which celebrity is constructed (J. Hoberman has a similar read, as does the Washington Post’s Desson Thomas).

Of course, unlike Fellini’s film, the movie isn’t finished when the director runs out of money. Instead, like Altman’s The Player, the movie is done when the cast and crew watch their first test screening. And even after the credits roll, Coogan has to demonstrate that he can do a better Pacino than his co-star, Brydon.

5 Comments »

  1. Laura Said,

    February 18, 2006 @ 3:49 am

    It sounds a bit like The French Lieutenant’s Woman (only funny). Steve Coogan & Alfred Molina were a scream in Coffee and Cigarettes.

  2. Laura Said,

    February 18, 2006 @ 3:53 am

    Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you said that. I was sort of distracted into wondering if metafictional selfreflexive novels ever get adapted into nonselfreflexive nonmetafictional movies. (And of course they do…sometimes.)

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 18, 2006 @ 10:27 am

    Yes, a lot like French Lieutenant’s only funny. Trying to think of metafictional selfreflexive novels that get adapted into noselfreflexive films, but I’m currently drawing a blank. Of course it’s 10:30 AM on a Saturday and I’m just now making my morning coffee, so I’ll have to wake up first.

  4. Darren Said,

    February 20, 2006 @ 12:08 pm

    When all is said and done, what most impresses me about Tristram Shandy is how consistently smart and funny it is. I mean, I love the self-reflexive commentary and meta-metaness of it as much as the next art dork, but, god, this movie is funny. It’s the first comedy I’ve seen in years that I really, really love.

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 20, 2006 @ 1:09 pm

    Darren, I agree, and I’m surprised I didn’t mention that. It’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in ages.

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