In an interview in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” actor Steve Coogan, playing himself, describes Laurence Sterne’s source novel as “postmodern before there was a modern to be post about.” By trying to adapt it, Michael Winterbottom has set himself as difficult a challenge as David Cronenberg did when he filmed William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”
Sterne’s novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” is extremely entertaining, but a slow, challenging read, especially due to Sterne’s odd use of punctuation. Its narrator often speaks directly to the reader; he declares, “I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great Britain.” Despite the title, Shandy’s life and opinions take a back seat to mental drift and long sections about noses. Winterbottom’s film preserves the anecdotal quality of Sterne’s novel, but at a brief, fast-paced 90 minutes, it can’t match its epic heft. Instead, it takes the form of a comic mockumentary in a familiar genre—the film about making a film.
“Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” starts in the makeup room, where actors Coogan and Rob Brydon are talking. Their relationship is a mix of rivalry and friendship—the two look like they could be the brothers as whom they’re cast––and their participation in a film adaptation of Sterne’s novel will test it. In the film-within-the-film, Tristram Shandy (Coogan) introduces himself to the audience. He decides to kick off his autobiographical account with his birth. Coogan also plays his father Walter, a man obsessively devoted to planning his son’s life. Elizabeth Shandy (Keely Hawes) is about to give birth.
However, Winterbottom’s film never progresses any further in Shandy’s life beyond that birth. After the scene, director Mark (Jeremy Northam) declares his satisfaction. Filming is over for the day, and Coogan reverts back to his private life. A new father, he battles his attraction to assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris). Whenever he intends to spend some time with his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), something gets in the way.
While drawn from Sterne’s novel, the pseudonymous Martin Hardy’s screenplay is also reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Phantom of Liberty” in its use of constant, often absurd interruptions. Coogan’s agent passes along a script from HBO, and while the actor’s comments about TV are not too complimentary, one can imagine this as a pilot episode for a comedy on that channel, resting alongside “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Extras,” and “Entourage.” In fact, Winterbottom and original screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce first planned to make “Tristram Shandy” as a sitcom but decided there wasn’t enough plot.
In the U.S., Coogan is probably best known for playing record company head Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People.” Winterbottom’s prolific filmography is as eclectic as Ang Lee’s, but “24 Hour Party People,” with its self-conscious asides to the audience, bears plenty in common with “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” However, Coogan became famous in Britain through the TV programs “Knowing Me, Knowing You”––a mock talk show––and “I’m Alan Partridge.” Before “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office,” he helped pioneer the comedy of embarrassment, playing a DJ whose ego just barely covered up his shame at his sinking career and inability to realize his dreams.
Coogan refers to Partridge several times in this “Tristram Shandy” suggesting that the character’s shadow is difficult to escape from, but he’s willing to play with his own image in unflattering ways, including a reference to a sex scandal with a stripper. Even so, many of these references ultimately feel self-serving––this film’s Coogan stays faithful to Jenny.
When pressed for a reason why he’s devoted a year of his life to making this film, Mark says “Because it’s funny.” In publicity materials, Winterbottom says the exact same thing. “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” aims for more than light comedy, but it doesn’t quite achieve it.
Winterbottom’s film tries to parallel many of Sterne’s devices. The obsession with childbirth extends out of the film-within-the-film into Coogan’s real life. Shandy’s life story never gets told because he’s too busy describing his family and friends; Mark’s final cut disappoints some people because it leaves out large sections of the narrative, even parts that were arduous and expensive to film.
“Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” begins and ends with Coogan and Brydon’s banter––the closing credits play over the two doing Al Pacino impressions. The duo make a great comic pair––if they weren’t so skilled, the film’s flaws would be more readily apparent. Its vision of stardom is a bit clichéd, although Coogan’s egomania is exquisitely detailed. He even worries about whether he’ll look taller than Brydon. It’s full of inside jokes that have become too familiar, although I did appreciate Jennie’s passion for Bresson and Fassbinder.
If the novel was centuries ahead of its time, Winterbottom’s film is very much of it. Nevertheless, it’s a great deal of sheer fun, showcasing Coogan as one of the best comic actors working today.