Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
In the middle of the 18th century, over a span of some ten years, Laurence Sterne
wrote a massive, discursive book in the form of a mock autobiography
called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It was
sort of the This is Spinal Tap of its own day, an autobiography
designed to demonstrate the inherent hubris and self-absorption
involved in trying to write an autobiography. Tristram tries to
narrate everything important to his life, starting with events that
happened before and during his conception. There are so many time-shifts and prolix digressions
that poor Tristram barely makes
it to his own birth!
Sterne himself was a learned man, knowledgeable about everything from classical antiquity to then-modern science, and he was proud to strut his erudition about any and every subject whenever the mood suited him. The opaque and rambling Tristram Shandy might have earned him a permanent place as the world's most famous bore, except for one thing: he had a sense of humor, and a bawdy one at that. Because Sterne took lots of pot-shots at the sacred cows of his own era, and because he loved a ribald laugh, his work was read by a far larger audience than those who might have been interested in his thoughts about Cervantes or Rabelais or modern medicine. That audience does not include me. I was a lit major as an undergrad, but this one joins Finnegans Wake on the list of masterpieces that I've never read all the way through, so I can't offer much more insight. It's in the public domain, so you can read it for free, if you care to. If you read a few paragraphs, you'll get enough of the general flavor to see that its verbosity and introspection are very clever and literary, and you might enjoy it if you had the time and patience for such things, but it's not exactly juicy screenplay material.
As Slate Magazine wrote:
So, is there a way to make a film of an unfilmable book?
Apparently so. Think about how successfully Charlie Kaufman did it in Adaptation. Same general idea worked here as well.
Director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce thought that the best way to show the genius of the novel was to show precisely why it is unfilmable, so this movie is not actually a film adaptation of Tristram Shandy, but a mockumentary about a group of people trying to make a film adaptation of Tristram Shandy. "Oh, God," you must be thinking, "not another damned self-referential film about the filmmaking process. Hasn't that been done to death? And isn't it a subject that nobody gives two shits about anyway, unless they actually make movies?" I thought about that, but I think it worked here, just as it worked in Adaptation, because it was not done to philosophize about illusion and reality in the moviemaking process, or any similar sophomoric and hackneyed cracker-barrel ruminating, but to address the inherent difficulty in translating the book into cinema. By taking this approach the screenwriter was able to use the filmmaking characters to discuss and debate which elements of the novel have been discarded or retained, and why. Of course, the beauty of it is that some of the book does translate well to film (Shandy's comical birth, for example), so the writer of this film was able to use those scenes from the film-within-a-film.
The chit-chat about the novel and the film business was interesting enough, but the parts I liked best were the exchanges between actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon when they were playing themselves. I don't know if these scenes were tightly scripted, improvised, or a combination of the two, but the two men proved very able at spoofing themselves and especially at roasting one another. One must give an especially sharp-angled tilt of the hat to Coogan for taking every nasty salvo fired by Brydon, returning fire, and even spoofing his own tabloid-friendly hijinks with Courtney Love by having the fictional Steve Coogan caught in an uncomfortably similar scenario. Nobody can say that Steve Coogan isn't willing to do anything for a laugh. Particularly after they've seen him naked and upside-down in the womb of Tristram's mother. If you're thinking of hiring this guy, rest assured that he'll give you everything he's got.
If you are wondering whether this film is for you, a very telling fact is that there was an extremely wide gap between the near-unanimous critical approbation and the less enthusiastic perceptions of average moviegoers. Rotten Tomatoes says Tristram is off the top of the critical scale, with 90% of critics recommending it, but Yahoo voters only vote it a C+, even though Yahoo has a softball system in which C+ is quite a low score. (Deuce Bigelow is rated a B-!) You may conclude that it can be considered a highbrow movie. You may also conclude that many of the inside jokes will be lost on you if you are American (lots of British media references), or not very fond of the deadpan English style of dry wit, or just not interested in vintage English literature.
I have only one real reservation about offering a totally unreserved recommendation for you culture-vultures who do enjoy highbrow literary adaptations and English comedy. The film seems repetitive. As I watched it, there were moments when I thought this film was a complete delight, but then there were other times when I found my mind wandering because the script seemed to return to the same ideas again and again. When the cycle returned to Coogan and Brydon insulting each other, it was fun, but there were other times when it just seemed to be moving in a maddening circle.
But when it's good - it's genius!
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