Instead of doing a review, Judge Joe Armenio does an essay featuring a fictionalized version of himself as he deconstructs the review process.
"L-d," said my mother, "what is all this story about?"
Does Michael Winterbottom ever sleep? The British director's "reimagining" of Laurence Sterne's famously loopy 18th-century novel came directly after his experimental, non-narrative, sexually-explicit 9 Songs, and as I write he has another film in theaters, the lefty docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. Although critics have made a lot of his lack of a directorial signature, Winterbottom has shown a consistent interest in literary adaptation (Jude and The Claim are both based on Thomas Hardy novels), the lives of the poor and dispossessed (Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World are both about war-torn lands, and Wonderland is a small realist gem about working-class Londoners), and the lines which separate fiction and documentary (In This World and The Road to Guantanamo both feature non-actors portraying themselves in staged recreations of events from their lives). Seen in this context, it's not surprising that Winterbottom was interested in filming "unsimulated" sex in 9 Songs, since any film which features such intimate acts automatically becomes a documentary of sorts on the lives of its actors. Tristram Shandy fits rather neatly in this oeuvre as well with its earthy satire and backstage comedy, featuring prominent British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing exaggerated variations on themselves.
Facts of the Case
Sterne's novel is a comedy about chaos, about the impossibility of ever reducing life's complexities into a coherent narrative. Tristram Shandy sets out to tell his life story, but gets so caught up in digressions and explanations that, 700 pages later, he hasn't even been born yet. The novel is relentlessly self-aware, parodic, obsessed with the idea of narrative and the book as physical object (for example, instead of offering a description of a young widow's beauty, Sterne serves up a blank page on which the reader can inscribe his own visions of loveliness).
For good reasons the book has always been thought of as "unfilmable," and Winterbottom doesn't even try; instead he offers up an allusive, digressive backstage comedy of manners that attempts to capture the playful spirit of the book. The film features Steve Coogan (Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People) as "Steve Coogan," a fictionalized version of himself who is playing both Tristram and Walter Shandy (Tristram's father) in a film version of the novel. We see a few scenes from this film-within-a-film, which also features Keeley Hawes as Tristram's mother and Rob Brydon (MirrorMask) as his Uncle Toby. The rest of the film is a backstage comedy, a la Truffaut's Day for Night, as "Coogan" engages in a joshing rivalry with "Brydon," flirts with an intellectual production assistant (Naomie Harris, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and deals with a visit from his girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald, Gosford Park) and newborn son.
Sterne's book is a serious comedy about the ways that we organize and explain our lives, filled with jokes and footnotes but also with exquisite and subtle comic characterization; Winterbottom has no pretensions to equaling this artistic achievement and is content to make a breezy, clever bauble. The film works best if you give yourself up to its episodic rhythm and savor the small improvisatory exchanges and meta-commentary that Winterbottom and company throw in at every opportunity (such as the soundtrack, which features music from both period films (Barry Lyndon) and films about filmmaking (Nino Rota's familiar themes from Fellini's 8 1/2) (forgive the parentheses within parentheses, but it's hard to write about a film like this without indulging in at least some Sterne-ian funhouse-mirror stylistic shenanigans)). Highbrow cinephilia is represented by Harris' character, who delivers impassioned monologues on Bresson and Fassbinder to befuddled audiences. At one point the director even makes reference to one of his own films, as Coogan is interviewed by Tony Wilson, whom Coogan portrayed in 24 Hour Party People.
So Tristram Shandy is a fun movie, but ultimately all of these hijinks are also a bit frivolous and forgettable, and it's telling that the funniest and most resonant bits are also the most straightforward. A brief dramatized sequence from the novel, about the farcical circumstances surrounding Tristram's birth, is so brilliantly paced and acted that I wanted more, but we don't see much of the film-within-a-film after that. My other favorite moments were the wry improvisations between Coogan and Brydon, who send themselves up as neurotic careerists, endlessly trying to one-up each other. Brydon in particular is hilarious, meditating on the color of his teeth (he prefers "barley meadow" or "Tuscan sunset" to "yellow") or doing an Al Pacino impersonation in preparation for a breakthrough into American films. I found the "plot" of the backstage sequences tedious by contrast; maybe British audiences, and those Yanks who have followed his British TV career, will be more amused than I was at Coogan's parody of his own persona.
HBO presents Tristram Shandy in an attractive anamorphic transfer, and with a healthy complement of extras, which is only fitting for such a digressive film (think of the extras as footnotes to the film proper). Coogan and Brydon's commentary track is an extension of their amusing faux-rivalry, although 94 minutes of it might be a bit too much of a good thing. During the Coogan/Wilson interview, a voiceover promises that the entire interview will be available on the DVD and, lo and behold, here it is, running 12 minutes and featuring the fictionalized Coogan's thoughts on Sterne and Rob Brydon. Three deleted scenes are included: one is a rather grotesque slapstick sequence in which newborn Tristram is tossed about by his family; in another Tristram engages in negotiations with a silly-looking Grim Reaper, and in the last, Coogan gripes about a review of his appearance in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. The DVD also features several extended versions of scenes from the film, the longest of which are the conversations between Brydon and Coogan which open and close the movie. Finally we have the "Behind-the-Scenes Footage," which consists mostly of a surprisingly serious and interesting conversation about Sterne between a curator (unfortunately uncredited) at Shandy Hall (Sterne's home, now a museum) and actor-writer-gadabout Stephen Fry, who plays both Parson Yorick and a curator in Tristram Shandy.
Tristram Shandy is not an especially deep or resonant film; it's playful for the sake of playfulness, rather than being a serious inquiry into the nature of narrative (like Sterne's novel) or the process of filmmaking (like, for example, 8 1/2, or Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep). If it seems tossed-off and slight to you, the good news is that Winterbottom films are like the noisy university shuttle-buses that stop right in front of my apartment building: if you don't get one, there'll be another along in 15 minutes.
It's worth seeing for the Pacino impersonations. "I'm taking you down," indeed.
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