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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Thrice-told Tales

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Laurence Sterne's c. 1760s ur-postmodern novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman isn't the sort of book one reads any more, except perhaps in the stray English class taught by a hoary professor in musty tweed who comes out of retirement (or the grave) to teach it. It's long -- published in nine volumes over eight years -- and filled with narrative digressions, contemporary satire, chaotic chronology and, now and then, a page of asterisks, or of nothing at all.

 

 

For several hundred years now, experts have considered Tristram Shandy unfilmable, which is undoubtedly why the ever-challenging Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, Wonderland) decided to do it anyway. Sterne's eponymous gentleman expends his energy writing a novel about the life of his times. So Winterbottom's film employs an appropriate, if obvious, cinematic foil: It revolves around a company making a film version of Sterne's convoluted book.

 

Winterbottom begins with his two leading actors in the makeup room playing, more or less, themselves: Steve Coogan will be Tristram in the movie, and Rob Brydon will be Uncle Toby. They banter playfully over who deserves top billing, and Coogan searches for a name to describe the yellow of his teeth ("Tuscan Sunset," he seems to like). They're killing time -- virtually all they do, as opposed to making art, which barely gets a mention except by an earnest young production assistant who loves the book.

 

We actually see very little of Sterne's novel dramatized. There's the noisy, frenetic birth of baby Tristram, which gets repeated over and over as the adult Tristram narrates events leading up to it. There's the "battle scene," which commercial sensibility demands, even though art-house audiences won't care. And there's the romantic subplot, which pairs Gillian Anderson, the American "star" hired to give the movie some profile, with a besotted Brydon, who's been infatuated with her for years.

 

Sterne's novel was one-of-a-kind in its time; Winterbottom's translation is another show-biz riff on show-biz flakes. But it's briskly made, frequently funny and tongue-in-cheekily ribald (the "cock" of the title is not a rooster). It's the sort of movie you'll need to digest for a while and then unpack (meaning "analyze," not "take a dump," as the nephew of a friend employs the term). Stay alert for many throwaway quips: Some are worth retrieving from the trash to help prepare your outline for class next week.

 

Real satire doesn't get all warm and fuzzy the way Winterbottom's does, and it certainly doesn't try to please the masses with a closing title sequence of two actors competing to do the best Al Pacino impersonation. This Tristram is decidedly more for the cineastes than the literati. It's an enjoyable fillip about the preposterous task of turning life into art -- just as Tristram struggled to do in his incessant book, and just as Winterbottom does with his loose "adaptation."

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