March 16, 2006

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (R)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

A British movie crew tries to adapt the unfilmable The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

One of the central jokes of A Cock and Bull Story is that Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), the actor playing Tristram Shandy in this film within a film, hasn’t actually read the book. He takes his cues on what’s it about from his assistant, from the film’s writers and director and from his girlfriend but he’s never really sure he’s got the whole story. He becomes, for example, a big booster of “the love story with Widow Wadman” cheering when the director gets Gillian Anderson (Gillian Anderson) to play the part. What Coogan doesn’t realize is that the love story isn’t Tristram’s but his uncle Toby’s, played by the jockeying-for-status actor Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon), and Coogan has just given his costar a part as big as his own. Considering that Coogan spent days lobbying for Brydon’s shoes to get a lower heel to better give the audience a sense of the status of the characters (so he self-importantly explains), this comes as a huge blow.

So much so that he begins, well, not reading the book, but skimming it with intensity, so much so that his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) falls asleep while waiting for him to come to bed. This is quite unfortunate for Jenny, who took a long trip into the English countryside with their infant son to see Coogan and, hopefully, have sex with him. Unfortunately, Coogan is a little obsessed with another Jennie (Naomie Harris), his assistant and possibly one of the few people on the set who has read the book. But only a little, because Coogan spends most of his energies being obsessed with himself — his image, his next film project, his wardrobe changes in the film.

Just as the book never really gets down to the business of telling Tristram’s story — it jumps, it digresses, it cracks 18th-century jokes and, finally, it loses the interest of the freshman English student — the movie doesn’t really get down to the story of making the movie. Instead we get parts of the movie, parts of the behind-the-scenes and a very meta ending that is, actually, pretty much straight from the book. With most of the actors playing “themselves” and the film facing the problems that a film of Tristram would face, this movie teeters on the edge of an abyss of mirrors reflecting mirrors. Teeters, totters but blissfully doesn’t fall.

The film is delightful and, as with the book, the genius is the small moments, as in the seemingly endless scene that plays over the credits with Brydon and Coogan talking about their “acting” styles. An equally petty and laugh-out-loud funny scene begins the movie with the two actors talking about their prosthetic noses and historically accurate yellow teeth. Cock and bull? Thankfully, this movie’s got plenty of both. B+


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