Coogan as Walter Shandy (left), Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby.
What's it all about, Alfie Barr?
movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story"
is brought to us with the sly distinction of being based on
the classic story and/or extended digression by Laurence Sterne.
Sterne's work is a satire of pure gentlemanly dalliance, the sort
of thing that proclaims: This was written because the upper crust
used to have this much time on their hands. Unfortunately, Playstation,
lawyers, the Internet, Art Forum magazine and Diesel stores have
filled the void this sort of court life left. In fact, the middle
class is now invited. Yes, Sterne wrote existentialist farces about
18th century aristocracy, probably because he was clergy.
The movie is sly because "Tristram Shandy" is supposed
to be unfilmable due to its nonlinear and generally complicated
structure ... it's as unreadable as this review on purpose. It's
also sly because the book is now more of an excuse to do a movie
about doing a movie based on the "unfilmable" book. In short, it
is all about reputations, but without all the vicars' benedictions
one gets in Merchant and Ivory films.
The results are amusing, as Sterne's inside jokes about class and
male dominance are given parallels in the film world's pecking order.
The resulting parallels make the film a sort of study in pathetic
male posturing from both the 18th and 21st centuries.
I suppose the details might be important here; that's kinda expected
in a review. Steve Coogan ("The Office," "24 Hour
Party People") plays Tristram Shandy, Shandy's father Walter
and himself, of course, but is clearly annoyed that he can't play
himself as a baby and as a boy. He does get to play himself as a
fetus in his mother's womb, though, a scene which provides plenty
Coogan's constant jockeying for alpha-actor dominance with Rob
Brydon as Tristram's Uncle Toby is also amusing, misguided and totally
relevant, as Tristram's uncle arguably dominates the actual book.
Furthermore, Brydon as a supporting actor does steal most of the
scenes he has, both in the roles of Toby and Brydon.
as Coogan playing Walter Shandy (left), Brydon as Brydon playing
A question keeps coming up in the film: Is Coogan leading man material?
Well, in "24 Hour Party People" he was and in "The
Office" he did make a fine ass of himself (the American version
of the TV show lacks his impeccable timing). The addition of Gillian
Anderson completely upstages both Coogan and Brydon, as the former
"X-Files" star does some wonderful things with subtle
eye movement in her closeups as Widow Wadman.
The film is not laugh-out-loud so much as it produces laughs from
discomfort. If you have a sadistic sense of humor this is a film
Now here's the interesting part: How did they ever get to produce
this very intelligent but meandering farce? Did Werner Herzog's
recent film, "Incident at Loch Ness," with its constant shifting
of "staged" behind-the-scenes moments and "in the film" moments
make this viable?
Or was it that the nonlinear, arch odd art films of Matthew Barney
made it necessary to resurrect an earlier nonlinear precedent? Coogans'
film-geek runner, Jennie, might have asked the question but didn't.
The truth is that people have called "The Life and Opinions
of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-67)" the first postmodern novel,
conveniently before modernism came into existence so now that Postmodernism
has fallen out of meaningful use and into the vernacular of local
news anchormen, it was important to bring the intellectual farce
to the big screen.
Modernism was a reaction of dread (I challenge anyone to find anything
cheery about Manet's "Olympia" or "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon") and joy (Delaunay,
Chagall) to rapid technological change. Postmodernism was just a
repackaging of the dread and joy to keep it fresh because it's all
just one big existential feedback loop (tell me how analytical cubism
was utopian and linear, as is how many describe modernism).
Now, we need a new term for our challenging times and farce itself
never goes out of vogue (unless you have a dictator like Stalin,
Hitler, Saddam, etc.). Even the ancient Greeks had Aristophanes.
Just like the Greek farce-meister himself, we are creating farces
about our farces. Some years ago "meta" came into popular
use but that's nothing new, either.
"Tristram Shandy" the movie is like the book that spawned
it a litmus test posing as entertainment for anyone with
the patience and mental acuity to stomach it. I recommend it.