The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tristram Shandy - A Cock And Bull Story

It's "English literary classics" week here at the Netflix reviewing labs. First we had Revengers Tragedy, based on a play from the early 1600's. Now we try out Tristram Shandy - A Cock And Bull Story, based on a nine volume serial written by Laurence Sterne in the late middle part of the 1700's.

The book has been the object of both veneration and derision by reviewers over the centuries. It is exceedingly tortuous to read. The fictional narrator (Tristram Shandy) sets up to tell us about his life, starting with the circumstances of his birth. But he keeps getting sidetracked with background stories and information about the people and events leading up to his birth, so that at the end of almost 600 pages of text, he hasn't quite managed to get himself born in his autobiography.

The author thinks nothing of breaking off a statement from a character such as his father or uncle in mid-sentence to explore the philosophical or experiential background that would lead to such an opinion, then returning to the scene and the quotation a chapter or two later. Chapters are filled with ellipses and em-dashes and asterisks, as well as quotations in Latin, French, and Greek. A couple of pages are solid black. One chapter has no content at all. The author engages in hypothetical arguments with his imagined critics as he writes his passages.

Some people find the book a masterful piece of bittersweet irony at man's inability to achieve his goals because of the constant interplay of factors beyond his control and the myriad interactions between unforeseen events that create our existence. Others find it a vanity experiment that is basically an overlong one-concept gag... Constant digressions violate the expectations of linear narrative.

The one thing everyone seemed to agree on in the last sixty years or so was that the work could not be turned into a film. Along comes British director Michael Winterbottom and a cast of British comedians to say "Pshaw" to that.

They have created a movie that may be impossible to describe in a review. It is the story of the cast and crew making the movie we are watching. The lead actors are played by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both well-known comedic actors in the UK who have not gained widespread notoriety in America. They play the characters in the Tristram Shandy novel, but they also play "Steve Coogan" and "Rob Brydon" - the actors making the film. But Coogan makes sure we also see him commenting that the character of "Steve Coogan," the character in the movie, is an exaggerated caricature of himself, the real person. But his real person commentator is also interviewed within the movie, making him just as much a character as the two characterizations he is commenting upon.

Confused? It gets worse. By the end of the film, the movie shows us the film crew watching the final cut of the movie they have made, which seems to be the movie we are watching, showing them watching the movie. The self-referential layers get so thick that I can only believe we are meant to throw up our hands and surrender our adherence to the idea of an objective reality outside the frame of reference of the observer.

There is a scene where Coogan in the character of Tristram Shandy comments on the actor playing him as a young boy and the boy actor steps out of his scene to have an argument with Coogan the actor before stepping right back into character and completing the scene.

I offer these examples just to attempt to give you an idea of what you are committing to. In no way is this a straightforward telling of the Tristram Shandy story.

Your enjoyment of the film will be enhanced by a bit of background on the real Steve Coogan. He had a very popular satirical fake talk show on BBC TV where he played a fictional host by the name of Alan Partridge. In Tristram Shandy, he keeps commenting on how people want to think of him as that character - or at least the actor who portrayed that character, which he continually discourages. But the real Coogan's exploits off-screen were also the subject of tabloid glee, as he was generally portrayed as an over-sexed ladies' man who had some serious problems with fidelity and single-partner commitment. The version of Coogan as the actor portraying Shandy in the film is a fairly despicable character... vain and self-promoting, pursuing a female crewmember while his girlfriend is upstairs with their new baby.

The movie is filled with some very funny lines and bits of action. I laughed many times. It offers some biting comments on the inane details of film making. But it is also so convoluted and drily understated in the improvised dialog between the Coogan and Brydon actor characters that you may find yourself nodding instead of reacting.

The movie was generally a critical success in America with a very small "art house" theatrical showing, but in reading through user comments on IMDB and Amazon I find that viewers are polarized in their opinions. Some think it a masterpiece and others find it dull and uninteresting. Sterne would probably be pleased by the controversy and argument. I quite enjoyed the film, but I understand that it is not for everyone.

If you do rent the movie, make sure to let the end credits roll. For me, the funniest bit in the film comes at the end in a piece of improvised interplay between Coogan and Brydon as they comment on a line delivery in the movie.

Parents notes include sexual situations, a brief shot of a young boy's genitalia, and cursing.

The DVD includes a commentary track by Coogan and Brydon that did not hold my interest, deleted/extended scenes, behind the scenes footage, and the theatrical trailer. None of the special features added much for me.

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