Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

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I am a student of literature, and one more than anything else, one movement I adore about all others is Postmodernism. However, one cannot be a lover of Postmodernism without knowing that there was one book, as Steve Coogan in this film puts it, that was a Postmodern novel before there was any Modern texts to be “post about” – that book was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Much like other Postmodern novels, it is widely considered to be an unfilmable book – and somehow Michael Winterbottom managed to find a dastardly clever way around this, but adapting the book notorious for being about the inability to get a book written into a film about the inability to get a film made. That film was obviously the subject of this review, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

One of my guilty pleasures when it comes to films is cinema about cinema – there is something about the self-referential nature of these kinds of films that I enjoy. More specifically, I love films about doomed film productions the most. If one is looking for a truly entertaining film about the process of filmmaking, one needs to look no further than this film – Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is one of the most audacious and brilliant pieces of cinema I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the funniest films ever made. It is also a film that is strangely underrated, and I’d consider something this great to be more seen and beloved – but alas, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a wonderful piece of cinema.

The novel is about the titular character attempting to write his life story – it is a pretty basic, albeit amusing, tale that doesn’t bear too much remarkable about it in terms of being cinematic (most of the joy from the story comes from Laurence Sterne’s constant diversions and playful nature of writing) – but the real brilliance of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is in the theme of filmmaking – the actors in this film play semi-fictionalized versions of themselves as they navigate the troubled and complicated production, where the concepts of fame and romance come into the foreground as we see this very complex albeit hilarious production come to life. There, much of the success of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story can be found in the actors themselves, as they drive this film and elevate it to something magical.

Steve Coogan is one of the most popular comedic actors in Britain today, and I have been a fan of his for a long time. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is prime material for Coogan to show off his comedic talents, which he is desperate to do in order to detach himself from the Alan Partridge character. As ridiculous as Alan Partridge is, there is another character that is far more ludicrous and a piece of far-fetched genius – Steve Coogan. Playing a comically serious, often dour man who is striving to be a movie star, Coogan puts on the act of a serious actor, while still managing to find the comedy in the performance. Playing yourself is always a tricky situation, because it is important to find a balance – you can’t play yourself exactly as you are in real life, because hardly anyone (with the exception of maybe Klaus Kinski and Tilda Swinton) are more interesting in real life than the characters they play. Yet you can’t come off as a caricature of yourself, because then everyone will believe you act that way in real life. There needs to be a balance, and Coogan does it perfectly – he brings realism and comedy to the role, and does a great job of it. It may not seem like a compliment, but I think Coogan really shines when he is playing himself, because much like Larry David has done in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Coogan has created a remarkably funny character out of his own personality.

There is, however, a secret weapon in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – Rob Brydon. Believe me when I say this with full confidence – Rob Brydon is an absolute gift to humanity. The film begins with Brydon and Coogan have a conversation about Brydon’s place in the film-within-the-film – is he a supporting character, or is he a co-lead? What I thought was a funny but insignificant scene actually turned into something quite remarkable – it was a foreshadowing about this film as a whole – Brydon may not have the “starring” role in the same way that Coogan does, but he is certainly present throughout the film and makes a huge impact. He does this by doing something very few actors manage to do – he steals absolutely every scene he is in. Brydon is present throughout the film, but he makes the most of every single moment and is truly tremendous. I have rarely laughed as much as I have in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and the vast majority of that came from Brydon himself. What a brilliant performance from a truly hilarious man.

This film markets itself as a Coogan-Brydon film, and it never deviates from that, despite having quite an impressive cast. Unlike many films that have big casts of notable names, the actors aren’t underused at all – they are all utilized beautifully, and serve their purpose. None of them actually make much of an impact or distract from the central pairing, but rather contribute excellently to the overall film. I won’t deny that I could have easily used more of Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson or Dylan Moran (who created one of the greatest television shows of all time, Black Books, and deserves a sainthood for doing so) – but in their limited roles, they make their mark. The cast is filled with familiar faces, and they all get their moments to shine, but not so much that they overwhelm the central theme. If you want to see a film that knows exactly what to do with its cast, look no further than Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a very funny film, but it is a lot smarter than it seems, as it isn’t only a broad comedy with silly characters and often vulgar humour, it is one of the sharpest satires about filmmaking ever made. It actually makes some very bleak statements about fame – Coogan plays himself as a tragic character, unable to shrug off the shackles of a very popular character that he is permanently related to. As someone who adores Postmodernism, I appreciated the playful but intricate manner in which this film uses the themes of the novel in exploring the concept of cinema – how it is made, how it is corrupted and how it can be destroyed by a lack of focus and pretentiousness. On the surface, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a hilarious comedy about things going wrong – but there is certainly something a lot deeper throughout this film, and that is what took this film to another level.

In conclusion, I have to say I really loved Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Not only is it a wonderful piece of cinematic satire, that rips apart the very institute it belongs to, it is also simply an entertaining film, with great performances, both from the two leads and the plethora of supporting players that make Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story a pseudo-Shakespearean tragicomedy in the way it uses its actors and presents the story of something both tragic and hilarious, and ultimately doesn’t reach much of a point. It is a great film, and certainly a sadly underrated one that I truly believe needs to be seen by more people. It is a masterpiece of modern satire, just like the novel that inspired it was a true gem of satire in the period it was written. Such a wonderful film, and one that deserves to be sought out.

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