Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

BY KHALILAH WALTERS

Have you ever wondered why it is that adaptations of your favorite novels are usually so woefully inadequate? The latest film from 24 Hour Party People director Michael Winterbottom might prove illuminating on that score. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is about the attempt at adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century masterpiece of digression, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Tristram Shandy combines documentary and fictionalized adaptation in an absurdist and frolicsome exposé of the process behind of creating a film.A film within a film, Tristram Shandy has actor Steve Coogan playing an actor, Steve Coogan, who is the lead in the adaptation of the Sterne novel. Adapting Sterne’s madcap novel to film is a notoriously impossible task, and Winterbottom’s attempts to lampoon the world of filmmaking take a digressive approach akin to Sterne’s. Coogan’s character sees the adaptation as a vehicle to propel him to better things following the debacle of his previous project, Knowing Me Knowing You – a career turn everyone but Coogan seems keen on recalling. Tristram Shandy is not for everyone. While the understated humor may be a hit with fans of British comedy, stay away if you appreciate coherence or a clear point in a film. Plot is a dirty, four-letter word in Tristram Shandy. The many narrative strings – if they manage to intersect – do not meld in any coherent form. The film’s twitchy financiers are on the verge of pulling the plug on the whole project if certain elements of the story are not realized. The flirtation between Steve and his assistant, Jennie Harris, awkwardly coincides with a visit from his girlfriend, Jenny, and their six month old. Steve Coogan is being hassled by a tabloid journalist threatening to scandalize him with publication of the story of a sordid sexcapade. Gillian Anderson of “X-Files” fame makes a cameo that is mysteriously axed from the final cut. Some plotlines are unceremoniously dropped altogether (what happened with the tabloid reporter?). Forget chronology. Tristram Shandy is a free-wheeling, convoluted mess giddily cavorting back and forth through eras, combining “period piece” with postmodern meta-cinema. This brings us back to the first question. If Tristram Shandy is a commentary on adaptation in general, then it is no wonder some films are adaptations in name only. Many of the characters in Tristram Shandy are not terribly preoccupied with the actual plot of the Sterne novel they seek to adapt. Steve Coogan hasn’t even read it. Artistic integrity is subordinated to the petty carping of insecure actors in the self-absorbed world of cast and crew. The cockfight between Steve Coogan and his co-lead-slash-supporting actor, Rob Brydon, provides the film with much of its humor; their battles rage on over Coogan’s preoccupation with his height relative to Brydon’s. One recurrent theme is the actors’ pronouncement that their production must be funny. As it stands, despite an occasional stab at tenderness, Tristram Shandy enjoys only limited success as an entertaining film that fails to evince any resonant idea besides what petty creatures actors and are and why they and film directors are so reliably inept in creating adaptations. Tristram Shandy may be an ode to film making at its worst – a self-absorbed adaptation by actors of their circumstances to suit the exigencies of their egos.

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