In the mood for a fiendishly clever and frequently hilarious film-within-a-film that breaks all conventional cinematic boundaries? Try Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, new to DVD this week. Faced with the daunting task of adapting Laurence Sterne’s “unfilmable” comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Winterbottom simply opts not to. What appears to be an 18th century comedy of manners quickly morphs into an insider’s account of the making of the film and back again as the line between artist and subject becomes increasingly blurred.
This lighthearted romp stars Steve Coogan (who worked with Winterbottom before in 24 Hour Party People) as the title character who tries, but inevitably fails, to tell us his life story. Now here’s where things get slightly complicated. Coogan also plays Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, as well as a “slightly grotesque” version of himself, Steve Coogan the actor. Confused yet? Bear with me, because this one, reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay, truly defies description.
The film opens with Coogan, courageously playing himself as a bit of a self-absorbed asshole, sitting in makeup with fellow actor Rob Brydon, who plays Tristram’s Uncle Toby in the actual story. After they debate the question of Brydon’s status as a co-lead in the production (Coogan’s insecurity about having top billing colors their relationship throughout the film), the action shifts to the 18th century as Coogan, now fully in character as Tristram, begins to share the story of his conception and birth. He immediately breaks down the fourth wall by directly addressing the camera and when the narrative progresses too quickly, puts a halt to the action, calmly stating, “I am getting ahead of myself. I am not yet born.”
During the middle of Tristram’s birth scene, the camera pans over to capture the film’s crew hard at work, and suddenly we’re back behind the scenes of what appears to be an increasingly troubled production. Jeremy Northam plays Mark, the frazzled director, and a talented cast of British character actors brings the rest of the film crew to life. After a disastrous screening of the day’s rushes, the film’s financiers arrive to discuss the expensive reshoot of a key battle scene, while outside a rowdy collection of historic re-enactors await their turn in the spotlight. Coogan, shamelessly flirting with his fetching assistant (Naomie Harris), is constantly besieged by a steady stream of agents, reporters, and crew as his girlfriend (Kelly MacDonald) and newborn child arrive on location. Winterbottom, probably better known for weightier fare like Jude and Welcome to Sarajevo, displays a deft comic touch in capturing the barely controlled chaos that is a movie set.
The action seamlessly shifts back and forth from Tristram’s story to Coogan’s backstage tribulations as Winterbottom employs every technique in the book: freeze-frames, handheld shots that infuse scenes with a manic energy, mock on-set interviews, and one memorable five-shot split screen sequence. Even Sterne’s famous “black page” is referenced as the screen suddenly goes dark when it’s mentioned in a last-minute script meeting. The result is a heady mixture of insider humor that feels refreshingly improvised in its playful nudge at the industry and generous doses of Sterne’s own inspired musings about life and the nature of art. Here’s the irony: by veering wildly from the original narrative, the film does a better job of paying tribute to the true spirit of the novel, which is nothing if not a series of digressions, than any “faithful” adaptation could ever hope to accomplish.
More importantly, it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Steve Coogan is at his narcissistic best, whether he’s being lowered into a giant model of a womb for a truly bizarre dream sequence or touting the virtues of the novel as a “postmodern classic before modernism was even there to be post about.” I’ll just use the phrase “hot chestnut down the knickers” to describe a bit of physical comedy he performs that had me in tears. Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby (and himself) is the perfect foil to Coogan, and the two play off one another effortlessly in scene after scene. The entire cast, from Naomie Harris as the film nut p.a. with an encyclopedic knowledge of German cinema to Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley in Harry Potter) as the military consultant who’s a stickler for historical accuracy, fully inhabit their roles, however small, and exude a spirit of fun that permeates the entire production.
Because of its self-reflexive, experimental nature, the tendency might be to label a film like Tristram Shandy as lightweight or too clever for its own good, criticisms that just as easily could be leveled at the novel itself. But I think that misses the point. It’s been said that all art is really about itself and the book’s central theme certainly embodies this notion. At one point in the film, an expert on Sterne (played by Stephen Fry) says it this way, “Life is chaotic, amorphous. Life is too full, too rich to be able to be captured by art.” So Sterne chose instead to play the jester, mocking the serious aspects of life and death while still illuminating what it means to be truly alive. So it is with Winterbottom’s film, a brilliant comic addition to an already impressive body of work.
The bonus features on this widescreen DVD version of Tristram Shandy aren’t plentiful but they’re well worth checking out, if only to get additional glimpses of Coogan and Brydon’s comic genius. Winterbottom doesn’t appear to be involved with any of the extras but listening to these two riff on a variety of subjects more than compensates for his absence.
First off, we’re treated to the complete Tony Wilson interview with Steve Coogan, who’s in character for the film as Steve Coogan the actor. Does that make sense? Tony Wilson, in another twist, is the real-life producer whom Coogan depicted in 24 Hour Party People, and now he’s in this film, playing himself, interviewing the actors playing themselves. Ooh, this is good stuff. After a rambling interview that Coogan worries is too long, we hear an assistant tell him not to worry, that they’ll take what they need and just throw the rest of it on the DVD.
There are three deleted scenes, “The Demise of Tristram,” “Flinging Up Baby,” and “Poor Notices,” all of which are funny in their own right and brief enough to have been included in the film. The disc also includes scene extensions which give Brydon full rein to cut loose, often cracking up Coogan in the process. Brydon’s on-set interview with Tony Wilson is not to be missed. There’s also a funny sequence in which members of the cast discuss their favorite porn star names.
“Behind the Scenes” contains a rather forgettable musical montage of the night shoot with the group of historical re-enactors that were there to film the battle sequences. But it also has a tour of Shandy Hall, Laurence Sterne’s home and the place where he wrote the novel. Stephen Fry, who plays Yorick and the Sterne expert in the film, has a fascinating discussion with a real-life Sterne scholar, wherein we learn much about the author’s life and the novel’s primary themes. That conversation combined with my enjoyment of the film prompted me to order the book today.
Coogan and Brydon begin the audio commentary in quite serious fashion only to reveal that they’ve decided to conduct it in the nude, so you can imagine where this is headed. In between the jokes and shameless pleas for American directors like Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne to hire them, they provide a couple of genuine insights into the making of the film. Several times they note cuts that aren’t the typical comic edits, at first mildly complaining that Winterbottom in essence stepped on their lines but then coming to the conclusion that this approach worked better for the film as a whole.
Coogan points out one scene in which an actor playing the doctor genuinely fell asleep so they decided to wake him up with the cameras rolling. The result is the greatest bit of method acting you’ll ever witness that fits perfectly into the scene. The two reveal a gift for impersonation as Brydon reveals that he was instructed to play an entire scene as Roger Moore and Coogan relates a story of his first encounter with Woody Allen. What’s even funnier is when both actors, on the tail end of a lengthy press junket for the film, begin to run out of steam toward the end and start to yawn uncontrollably. These two could read from the phone book and it would somehow be funny. The last feature on the disc is a theatrical trailer which does well to capture the essence of the film.