[Screen It]

(2006) (Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon) (R)

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Comedy: A small cast and movie crew try to film a reportedly un-filmable but famous novel.
It's the 1700s and Tristram Shandy (STEVE COOGAN) is a proper English gentlemen who's addressing the viewer about his life and times, including that of his Uncle Toby (ROB BRYDON) who suffered an embarrassing injury in the siege of Namur. But Tristram is most interested in talking about his own birth. We then flashback to his father Walter (STEVE COOGAN) awaiting the birth of his son, all as servant Susannah (SHIRLEY HENDERSON) tends to his wife, Elizabeth (KEELEY HAWES) who's deep in the throes of labor, all as Dr. Slop (DYLAN MORAN) desires to use a new delivery device known as the forceps on her.

But all of this is just make-believe as Coogan, Brydon, Henderson, Hawes and Moran are really actors on the set attempting to film a version of "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," an 18th century novel known to most as un-filmable. But that hasn't deterred the cast or crew -- including director Mark (JEREMY NORTHAM), producer Simon (JAMES FLEET) and screenwriter Joe (IAN HART) -- from giving it their best shot.

When the dailies point out the low-budget approach and thus don't bode well for the film's success, the crew decides to reinsert the previously jettisoned love story, thus necessitating the hiring of Gillian Anderson (GILLIAN ANDERSON) to play Widow Wadman. As that fictional romantic element is rekindled, Steve must figure out and balance his own romantic longings for production assistant Jennie (NAOMIE HARRIS) as his girlfriend and mother of his child, Jenny (KELLY MACDONALD), arrives for a brief visit.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
As you're most likely aware, movies originate from any number of sources. Some are real and thus based on true events, while others are completely fabricated from within one's imagination. Those that are based on other forms of media, however, are the hardest to pull off. That's because the source material is familiar and/or loved by the masses (books, TV shows, other movies) or simply wasn't meant to be turned into a film (songs and especially video games).

The most difficult, however, are complex novels that -- due to their length, narrative structure and/or headiness -- are often deemed "un-filmable." Yet, like moths to the flame or sailors lured into the rocks by the siren's song, certain filmmakers find the task of adapting such works irresistible. Not surprisingly, though, most end up burning or crashing, resulting in an unsalvageable wreck.

Accordingly, I'm happy to report that while director Michael Winterbottom might have seemed foolhardy to set sail on such an unimaginable journey fraught with cinematic pitfalls and danger around every bend, he's actually managed to pull it off with "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story."

Laurence Sterne's 18th century work, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," has long sustained its reputation as one of those un-filmable novels, although I'll admit I had never heard of it before seeing this film, a similar predicament the average moviegoer will have upon hearing Winterbottom's name. A critical and art house fan favorite, he's helmed little seen but often acclaimed films such as "24 Hour Party People" and "Welcome to Sarajevo."

How then, you might ask, did he manage to pull off this adaptation that most everyone before him had feared trying? Well, he and screenwriter Martin Hardy took the clever approach. Rather than trying to adapt Sterne's complex yet loosely structured story into a straightforward movie, they did something of an end-around on the source material. In short, they made a film about the making of the un-filmable film, thus proving a work-around to that latter adjective.

Right from the get-go, we see that both the filmmakers and their film have tongues firmly planted in cheek (figuratively and literally). The picture opens with its star and occasional Winterbottom player Steve Coogan sitting in a makeup chair alongside Rob Brydon, with both prepping to shoot a scene from the film "Tristram Shandy" and chatting about the color of the latter's teeth.

The two play themselves as well as characters in the film within a film, and Winterbottom gets a lot of mileage out of segueing between the two worlds. He also does the same with the usual moviemaking insider references and jokes (all of which delight critics and film aficionados but sometimes don't always make sense or ring as true for the average moviegoer looking for some simple, escapist entertainment).

Be that as it may, the result is a fabulously fun and often funny ride through the filming of a film for those ready for it. While not the first such picture to play with that concept (in fact, there have been many -- both comedic and dramatic), this one gives such material enough of a spin that it feels fresh and infectiously amusing from start to finish. For not only do the actors play themselves as well as their fictional counterparts, but some of them also stop to talk directly to the camera to explain who's who and what's going on. It's a delightfully whacky breaking of the proverbial "fourth wall," and the cast and crew seemingly have a lot of fun messing with the usual storytelling conventions.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can't say whether the scenes featuring it are faithful or not, or whether we're just seeing abridged snippets of the work (I'm guessing the latter). Of course, and except to whatever purists and/or fans of Sterne's novel might be out there, it doesn't really matter as that's not the film's intention. Instead, it's to have fun with the medium (thus paralleling the original novel's fun with its own creation), such as Coogan playing himself playing the main character as well as that figure's father, all along explaining the reasons why that is everyone else.

Similarly, the film is also rather loosey-goosey with its forward (or even backward) momentum, as it segues from one element to the next, sometimes logically, at others as if following a random train of thought. It's not as complicated or confusing as it might sound, but it is rather entertaining and certainly manages -- in a completely refreshing manner -- to avoid anything resembling usual cinematic formula.

Aside from the film's clever construction, it's Coogan that really makes it work. Whether playing the characters in the film within the film or a fictionalized (to what degree we don't know) version of himself, the real actor, Coogan nails the performance(s). His is not an altogether likable character, but he's certainly an entertaining and engaging one, especially when poking fun at himself and/or vain actors. Supporting performances from the likes of Jeremy Northam, Kelly MacDonald, Naomie Harris and particularly Rob Brydon (as another actor playing himself as well as a character in the film inside) are all solid, with the likes of former "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson showing up halfway through to add to the insider fun.

Something of an acquired taste and probably not for all moviegoers, but a blast for those who like movies about moviemaking (warts and all), "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" is sure to delight and heartily entertain many critics and art house attendees who get the jokes and references and can't wait for more. The clever and highly entertaining film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 29, 2005 / Posted February 17, 2006

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