Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

It's been called literature's greatest shaggy-dog story: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Irish-born cleric and satirist Laurence Sterne's 18th-century masterpiece of learned wit promises to be the first-person memoir of its titular character, but the novel never actually gets around to delivering on that promise. Instead of life story,...read more

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It's been called literature's greatest shaggy-dog story: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Irish-born cleric and satirist Laurence Sterne's 18th-century masterpiece of learned wit promises to be the first-person memoir of its titular character, but the novel never actually gets around to delivering on that promise. Instead of life story, we're given endless digressions on everything from Lockean philosophy to the design of Dutch fortresses. Even though Sterne's innovative and often confounding use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, cross-cutting, optical effects and direct-address voice-over narration have since become standard parts of film grammar, Tristram Shandy's lack of a conventional narrative means it's long been considered one of the great unfilmable novels. The adventurously versatile English director Michael Winterbottom, however, has fashioned an ingenious solution. Rather than adapt the novel per se, Winterbottom has adapted Sterne's hilarious attempts to make the mess of life fit the neat contours of the novel by making a movie about an attempt to make Sterne's chaotic and confusing novel fit the contours of a film. Just when Tristram Shandy is about to be born on screen — the starting point of any life story, but one that's continually deferred in Sterne's book — Winterbottom pulls back to reveal the film's crew, including the director, Mark (Jeremy Northam), and the actors, most of whom are playing satirical versions of their real-life selves: Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson and, cast as the on-screen narrator, Tristram Shandy, and his father, Walter, is the brilliantly funny Steve Coogan. Instead of a conventional film, we're treated to a barrage of digressive subplots that reveal the mechanics and behind-the-scenes drama of filmmaking in all its frustrating glory: the childishly egotistical Coogan's demand that the costume department add an inch to his heels so he'll appear taller than his rival and costar, Brydon; Coogan's flirtation with his assistant (Naomie Harris), despite the arrival of his longtime girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their son to the location shoot; the hilariously dull battle sequence that may have to get scraped if the producers can't secure financing for a reshoot; and the 11th-hour casting of Gillian Anderson, a recognizable star whose relative fame — and immediate availability — just might save the entire production. But nowhere is this ingenious adaptation truer to the spirit of Sterne than at the film's very end, when Anderson's shocked and disappointed reaction to the final product echoes the book's final sentences. In a final, bawdy fillip to any frustrated readers who thought they were in for a conventional novel when they picked up Tristram Shandy, Sterne has his alter ego admit to a listener that the tale he's been telling is nothing more than a nonsensical story about "a cock and a bull," to which he then adds, as the ingenious Winterbottom's hugely entertaining film is also entitled to claim, it's "one of the best of its kind I have ever heard."

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: R
  • Review: It's been called literature's greatest shaggy-dog story: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Irish-born cleric and satirist Laurence Sterne's 18th-century masterpiece of learned wit promises to be the first-person memoir of its titular cha… (more)

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