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Two actors, as their make up is applied, talk about the size of their parts. Then into the film: Laurence Sterne's unfilmable novel, Tristram Shandy, a fictive autobiography wherein the narrator, interrupted constantly, takes the entire story to be born. The film tracks between "Shandy" and behind the scenes. Size matters: parts, egos, shoes, noses. The lead's girlfriend, with their infant son, is up from London for the night, wanting sex; interruptions are constant. Scenes are shot, re-shot, and discarded. The purpose of the project is elusive. Fathers and sons; men and women; cocks and bulls. Life is amorphous, too full and too rich to be captured in one narrative. Written by
Messy and a bit too post-modern and smart-arsed for some I'm sure but for me it was just a great deal of fun and a lot of laughs
Before getting on to what I thought of the film, let's just get some of the big problems out in the open. Firstly those looking for an adaptation of the book will be disappointed to find that very little of the content is on the screen because the script uses it more as a frame and a guide for essentially a behind-the-scenes mockumentary about making the film of the book. It does go someway to backing up the claim that the book is "unfilmable" because this film certainly hasn't managed it. Secondly, by being all post-modern and having actors playing a version of themselves the film will alienate viewers who don't get it and feel that it is all too clever for its own good; likewise it may have people feeling that it has all been done before indeed by the very same people in fact.
However, that said, it is hard for me to ignore the fact that it was tremendous fun. Taking its lead from the novel's constant digressions, the film cannot stick on anything long and as we open the film jumping around the events around Tristram's birth, we soon find that we have jumped behind the scenes and into the lives of those involved. It is a brave move and one that doesn't totally work but it is surprisingly easy to go along with. In terms of the treatment of the novel I felt it did well because it made me want to read the book. We are told enough about the novel to develop an interest in it and know what it is about and it may be a very wise decision to have avoided tackling something that everyone says couldn't be done. Some parts of the book are told as they would have been in a "proper" filmed version but some are not one scene is actually Coogan's nightmare and features Brydon playing his big scene with Gillian Anderson with a Roger Moore impression.
In the place of a straight adaptation what we get is a wonderfully funny look at stars, period dramas, British film-making, celebrities and so on. It has very little structure to speak of but what it does have is a natural development, humour and delivery that makes it interesting and constantly fresh. I wasn't laughing every second because it isn't that type of comedy but occasionally it was very funny, producing some great scenes and some great dry wit. The "story" (if there is one) focuses on Coogan his pedantic fame, his exploits and generally the exaggerated version of himself that he has played before. This keeps the film moving forward by providing one central point of reference for everything else to happen around so, although it does feel very fragmented and distracted, really it is more structured than it appears. The most amusing moments do come from the post-modern looks at Coogan's insecurities, the contrast of his family life with the exploits with the stripper etc and generally it makes the film interesting because it does convince as a "reality" of a sort. Having said that though, the film does have some hysterical bits that just hang there by themselves; for example Brydon's Coogan impressions are hilarious, as is the Al Pacino discussion over the end credits.
The cast list reads like a who's who of British film and television some in main roles but many in semi-cameos who do the goods and then move on. Coogan is naturally the star (no matter what Brydon thinks!) and, although he has played a version of himself or addressed the camera in a post-modern way before, it still works well here. He is convincing and natural and it helps the film produce this "reality" that it really does heavily rely on. Brydon perhaps relies a bit too heavily on impressions but generally he is just as good and the scenes he shares with Coogan tend to be some of the funniest. Although she has largely been overlooked as the critics name names and hand out praise, I think that Naomi Harris deserves a lot of credit for her performance here. Left with a more serious thread to carry, she turns in a totally convincing performance to the point where I could easily believe this is who she is. She also produces an engaging thread around her desire for Coogan, despite having little to work with. I'll admit that I have liked her in most things I have seen her do, find her very attractive and did slightly fall for her "chilled, cool dressing film buff" character (ok, a bit more than slightly) but I still thought she was easily the best performance in the whole film.
The rest of the cast work well within the "reality" of the film and generally produce laughs. Faces like Moran, Fry and Walliams provide some comedy but are little more than cameos. Northam and Anderson are good and support is generally very good from people like Macdonald, Hart, Henderson and others. Winterbottom pulls off the seemingly impossible of holding it all together as director and moving well within the novel and reality both in terms of story telling but also visually.
Overall this will please as many people as it p*sses off I think. Taking the manner of telling of the novel (distracted and digressing) the film moves from a straight telling into a spoof of reality. Saying it like this sounds dull and "seen it all before" but it is an impressive piece of film-making that is brave and, even better, works. As brilliant as it is flawed, this is certainly worth a try whether you know the book or not because, simply put, it is tremendous, tumultuous fun.
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