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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
Is it possible to have a hot streak with a Winterbottom?
A film so post-post-postmodern that Steve Coogan steps out of the screen and hits on your girlfriend in the theater lobby -- I won't say if this is true or not -- Tristram Shandy is a meticulously controlled work that, despite the film-within-a-film conceit, is very faithful to its impenetrable source. Just like Sterne's book, the engine of Winterbottom's film is bittersweet melancholy, but the engine noise, drowning out what some might consider to be a nihilistic message, is bawdy, music-hall, veddy veddy English humor.
For Americans to get anything out of this movie, you will need to understand a bit about both Tristram Shandy -- at least enough to know that Coogan is playing Shandy's FATHER and that Shandy himself is only the narrator -- and about Steve Coogan's mythology. For those who are too lazy, all you need to know is that Coogan doesn't have a reputation for being led around by his brain. I have briefly met him in person and found the experience uncanny. He is so fully what he is that he seems to have a force-field around him that separates him from the more amorphous mass of humanity. In the future, when you say the word "Coogan," it will instantly paint a picture of a certain type of male. A type that women are drawn to irresistibly, because he is both a child in need of mothering, a grown Linus Van Pelt perpetually clutching a security blanket, and aggressively sexual and dirty. He's the bad boy and the baby all rolled into one. And yet, far from being a jerk or a cad, he is intensely likable.
All of which goes to show that rarely has any actor been more perfect for a role than Coogan is here. Posing this hapless man-child next to a bull with a huge bazoing pretty much says it all. You see, Sterne is not a fan of the procreative arts ( and judging by his last few movies, neither is Winterbottom; "Everyone's kid is so special," says Samantha Morton in Code 46, "Makes you wonder where all the ordinary adults come from." ) The title character of Tristram Shandy remains famously unborn, and the only characters that Sterne truly loves, and who truly love each other, are a eunuch and a widow, all of which goes to show that Sterne considers death to be a blessing and human existence to be largely unnecessary, nothing but the byproduct of mindless sexual flare-ups that would be quickly forgotten except for the babies they produce, who in turn have more sexual flare-ups, and so on. In the film these flare-ups come courtesy of Steve Coogan, playing both himself as a father -- and constantly attempting to cheat on his wife, as he is famous for doing in real life; you may even recall the false alarm that he'd knocked up Courtney Love! -- and also the reluctant Shandy's paterfamilias. Between these two Johnny Appleseeds, both of whom look like Steve Coogan, entire planetary systems could be populated and repopulated.
The film is short, but dense -- every scene has so many dimensions that the end result fans out like a peacock's tail. There are infinite details to sift through in its 90 minute running time, and there is a very beautifully done telescoping of time periods to match Tristram Shandy's 18th-century milieu with that of Steve Coogan's and our own modern day. When Coogan haggles over a script in the lobby of a trendily underlit London hotel, you feel somehow transported back to Shandy's father's palatial home and its elegant candlelight. The central scene of the film comes when Coogan, escaping from a costume party where the 21st century briefly crashes into the 18th, tells his wife: "I just had a nightmare." That nightmare is called our world, reality, human as opposed to divine love, the world controlled by time yet where nothing really changes except the clothes and the hairstyles, and that, despite its obvious wretchedness and pain, people are too afraid to give up; yes, the very same "cock and bull story" of the title. It is not every comedian who has something to say about the human comedy. But Coogan certainly does, under Michael Winterbottom's expert and disillusioned hand.
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