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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
Lots of Cleverness and some Wit but -- I do fear -- not quite enough Shandy
Michael Winterbottom's movie is an Altmanesque production depicting an English crew shooting Laurence's Sterne's eccentric eighteenth-century literary classic. It begins wittily and appropriately with Steve Coogan exchanging mocking banter with costar Rob Bryden, and then Coogan, with cosmetically enlarged and crooked nose and proper costume, becomes Shandy introducing himself. The essentials of the book are sketched in -- first of all, Tristram's meandering account of his childhood and birth (not in any logical order -- nor should they be -- and intersperced with Coogan's caustic comments on the child actors playing him at earlier stages -- which perfectly fits in with Sterne's tendency to interrupt himself on the slightest pretext); then, Uncle Toby (Rob Briden) and his obsession with his exploits at the Battle of Naumur, which include an injury whose location he studiously avoids explicating. The mishaps surrounding Tristram's birth start with his name and move on to the forceps -- then a new device -- whose clumsy use by Dr. Slop cause the altered nose. A falling window caused even more crucial damage.
The moment of birth is dwelt upon -- then the camera cuts back to the crew and the focus shifts to the Coogan-Bryden rivalry again, Steve's girlfriend and their baby, his own problems in bed, his flirtation with a pale-coffee-colored lady crew member who's a great film buff. Coogan wants his shoes made with higher heels so he's taller than Bryden. The filmmakers hold endless confabs over how to do a battle scene and whether to bring in the romance with Widow Wadham (to be played by Gillian Anderson, who agrees from Los Angeles with comic alacrity). Anderson's presence brings in more money for the battle, and then both the battle and the romance are left out of the final cut. Much hilarity accompanies these details, though the main focus is on Coogan's stardom and inability to have a minute to himself.
Unfortunately once Winterbottom pulls away from the birth scene, the Sterne novel, which pretty much ranks with Fielding's "Tom Jones" for brilliance and humor, somewhat falls by the wayside never to be recovered till just before the end, when it seems tacked back in as a hasty afterthought. And hasty is one thing Sterne never is: impulsive and quirky, but never, never, never -- oh, my Heavens No! -- not rushed. At novel's end, his main character, after all, has still not been born.
Maybe it means something that only one member of the cast is reported to have ever actually read "Tristram Shandy" through to the end. Neither Coogan nor Bryden seems particularly eighteenth-century in their role, and Bryden's isn't a particularly inspired recreation of Uncle Toby. Nobody is amiably eccentric to the right degree.
Winterbottom has made an intermittently quite funny movie that never loses its pace, but he has recreated Robert Altman rather than Laurence Sterne, and when you realize this, if you care at all about the novel, the whole enterprise, despite its frantic energy, becomes, for all its wit and good humor, a little bit of a drag. This is an enormously clever film, but what seems brilliant on paper doesn't always play for keeps.
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