Written in 1760, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is considered to be the first postmodern novel in English literature--which is quite a feat, considering the author had a couple hundred years to go before there was anything modern enough to be “post-” about. The book concerns the efforts of one upper-class Englishman, Tristram Shandy by name, to relate his life story. Over the course of several hundred bawdy and highly satirical pages, Mr. Shandy never quite seems to get past the circumstances of his own birth. If the book is “about” anything, it is the inability of something as rigid as art to encapsulate something as chaotic and amorphous as this thing called Life. The book, though considered a classic of English literature, has long been labeled “unfilmable.”
British comedian Steve Coogan (“I’m Alan Partridge,” 24 Hour Party People, Around the World in 80 Days) has both confirmed and denied this theory with his new film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in which he utterly fails to make a film out of the novel. That is not to say that Coogan has failed to make a successful movie. In fact, he (along with director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce) has succeeded wildly in his goal of making a movie about failing to make a movie of Tristram Shandy. Bear with me on this.
Eventually, even Tristram’s confused narrative breaks down, and we see Steve Coogan (now playing Steve Coogan) stepping out of his character to deal with a film set that is rapidly devolving as well. He’s got to contend with an insufferable costar (Rob Brydon, now playing Rob Brydon), a needy girlfriend, a new baby, a personal assistant that he kind of wants to sleep with and a crew that really has no idea what kind of movie they’re trying to make.
It all sounds very postmodern, of course. (How appropriate.) But the genius of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is how brilliantly these scenes that have basically nothing to do with the original book so cleverly mirror the original author’s offbeat intent. While Tristram Shandy tries and fails to herd his life into a tidy little narrative, Steve Coogan tries and fails to get a grip on his rapidly unhinging existence.
As Tristram slowly gets pushed to the edge of his own narrative, so too does Coogan. Amusingly, most of this comes about because Coogan has failed to heed the lessons of the book he’s filming. (As it turns out, he hasn’t even read it.) At one point, Coogan argues with the film’s screenwriters for the return of a love story subplot cut out of the final script. Unfortunately, he soon realizes that the love story doesn’t actually involve his character, further reducing his screen time and making him more of a supporting player in his own movie (not to mention his own life).
How much of this film is real, how much of it is improvised and how much of it is scripted mockumentary is as hard to ascertain as it is irrelevant to the final product. All are one and the same in the world of Tristram Shandy. That “Cock and Bull” in the title can be taken literally (there are several cocks and several bulls, to be sure) or it can be taken figuratively (“cock and bull” being the British term for an elaborate lie). At one point, for example, Coogan sits down for a TV interview. Bored with the pedestrian scene, he informs viewers that the complete interview will be available on the DVD, so it’s probably best to just move along.
This post-postmodern Tristram is one mad mash-up of genres: Tom Jones mixed with Fellini’s 9 1/2 and staffed by the cast of the BBC series “The Office.” It’s nuts, but it’s also exquisitely funny, smartly written and singularly unpredictable. Mr. Shandy himself would be proud ... even though he wasn’t a real person.
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