• Year: 2005
  • Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
  • Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Naomie Harris, Kelly Macdonald, Gillian Anderson
  • Written by: Laurence Sterne, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is based on the novel by Laurence Sterne called, aptly: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It was first published in 1759 and, while I haven’t read the book, I’m told that it’s quite humorous and full of that dry wit British comedies are noted for. This film version is, regrettably, light on the laughs.

The conceit here is that Tristram Shandy (the book) is, according to the characters in the movie, “unfilmable.” Nevertheless, a stalwart production team is attempting the impossible, with Steve Coogan playing himself playing the eponymous Tristram. Coogan is supported by Rob Brydon, who plays himself playing Tristram’s uncle, Toby. There’s a bit of a power struggle between Coogan and Brydon, which is actually the only funny aspect to the entire film. The rest is straight drama, for the most part, as we follow Coogan around, doing the things that we expect film actors to do: review rushes (or “dailies” here in the States), deal with tabloids, manage personal romances with girlfriends and coworkers, etc.

One might classify the movie as meta and a half, since the book character Tristram is aware that his life story is being told and constantly guides the reader/audience through meta devices. This affords a bit of comedy as Tristram criticizes the child actor playing him at a younger age. It was missed opportunity that Coogan didn’t carry the meta theme over to his real life portrayal of himself and start talking to the camera.

When all is said and done, Tristram Shandy pulls the audience in too many directions and ultimately leaves them confused. Which story are we really following? Do we pay attention to the life of Tristram Shandy or the life of Steve Coogan? If it’s the former, we don’t get enough story there to really get a grasp of what we’re watching. If it’s the latter, we get too much of the former to really concentrate on the latter. It’s almost as if the joke is on the audience, because it seems like the filming of Tristram Shandy is also unfilmable. Or, at the very least, unwatchable.