Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) Poster

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Cocky and bullish
skymovies12 January 2006
How do you film an unfilmable book? Well, you can either make it up as you go along, as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch, or you take this approach and make a film about a film crew making a film of an unfilmable book. The tricky tome in question here is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen - a bawdy work of wit and wonderment penned in 1760 by clergyman Laurence Sterne.

Steve Coogan plays Tristram - even though he's not born by the end of the book - as well as Tristram's father Walter... and himself. Or rather, a semi-fictional version of himself. Rob Brydon also stars as himself and Walter's brother - Tristram's Uncle Toby. There are lots of other familiar British TV actors either playing themselves playing other characters or simply playing characters who interact with the stars of the film-within-the-film (for example, Ian Hart plays the screenwriter but doesn't play Ian Hart). And Gillian Anderson makes an appearance. Confused? Don't worry, you won't be.

As the writer and director strive to retain the spirit of Shandy compromises have to be made to allow for star egos, historical accuracy (Mark Williams is excellent as a pain-in-the-arse military consultant), and a miniscule budget. In one cracking scene, the crew watch the 'rushes' of the underwhelming battle scene ("Look at that! There are, literally, tens of people..."), leaving the director in despair and the costume designer in tears.

The seemingly complicated set-up actually makes a lot of sense, with Coogan sending up the naughty-boy persona created for him by the British press and Brydon sending up Coogan, while the film itself sends up the movie-making process. Viewers will be frequently amused but never bewildered as Michael Winterbottom pulls it all together with panache.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel won't learn much, but it matters not. Bawdy and barmy, A Cock And Bull Story embodies Sterne's work perfectly. Coogan gamely shows his vulnerable side (or maybe that's just good acting?) and shows terrific rapport with Brydon, who steals the show with marvellously mundane banter and spot-on impersonations of Coogan-as-Alan Partridge and Roger Moore. Give that man his own movie.
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Is it possible to have a hot streak with a Winterbottom?
Delly26 January 2006
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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Filming the Impossible: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and its Nods to 8 1/2
nycritic8 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Has anyone ever truly read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman? Does anyone know what the hell it's supposed to be about? For that matter, does this review have a spoiler? Does it make sense that a scene depicting realism, for that matter, involve a man lodged upside-down in a makeshift womb? I don't know. I've tried to get past the first page of the book but I find that I go into brain-freeze, my thumb seeks solace in my mouth, and I scrunch into a fetal position not unlike Steve Coogan in the movie. I've come to the conclusion that when a work is so far ahead in the future to be rendered the apex of post-modernism, it's probably best to let it alone and have people think you're an intellectual because there it stands in plain view, a book with a handsome cover, in your bookshelf.

An unfilmable novel. Hell, an unreadable at that! But here it is, the first critical success of 2006: A COCK AND BULL STORY is the film to crack the shell and open the merry chaos that is Lawrence Sterne's crazy universe. Knowing that this novel is no walk in the park for anyone, Michael Winterbottom comes up with a mockumentary that details the creation of the movie we're watching which itself is about the adaptation of the book. This loop sets the stage for a flurry of events which transpire at a crazy pace parallel to the "events" of the book. Star and co-star clash on who's the bigger star, Tristram's own birth needs more and more takes, and then there's the "minor" issue that Widow Wadman, a major player of the novel, is nowhere to be seen in the screenplay and in walks Gillian Anderson who is cast as the Widow, who's scenes wind up in the cutting-room floor anyway.

Parallel to these events are others that mirror the ones in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Steve Coogan the actor in the movie is married to wife Jenny who has arrived to be with him during this filming with her infant son (who will play a part in the movie). Their relationship is not as strained as Guido and Luisa Anselmi but they are seen as on the cusp of being estranged. Carla's equivalent is her polar opposite, a film buff who's also part of the production crew, also named Jennie, who like Carla talks on and on about intricate, almost elaborate subtext of symbolisms that Steve succumbs to in one flirtatious scene when she comes on to him. He, like Guido, returns to his wife though, and despite the odds the movie becomes reality -- a very skewered one at best and one that leaves the audience saying, "Huh?" That is the main irony and in borrowing the original music score composed by Nino Rota it grounds A COCK AND BULL STORY in 8 1/2's sense of the absurd that continue even after the credits roll.
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Film version of a possibly unfilmable--some might say unreadable--novel
klg198 October 2005
Just saw this at the New York Film Festival, where it was met with the wild enthusiasm and raucous laughter it so fully deserves.

I intentionally avoided reading any reviews before I went, as I was so curious to see how Winterbottom (whose "24-Hour Party People" I had loved) would approach this bear of a book.

The film begins with the two stars getting made-up and chatting about the size of their roles and the color of their teeth (the actors, who appeared with Winterbottom in the post-screening Q&A at the festival, assured the audience that this opening scene, as well as their conversation over the end credits, was completely improvised). The scene shifts to Tristram Shandy beginning the narration of his life with an anecdote about Groucho Marx--and proceeds to go wild from there.

The cast is made up of some of the finest actors in British television--apart from the two leads, Dylan Moran of "Black Books" and David Walliams of "Little Britain" appear, as well as Stephen Fry, Shirley Henderson, and a host of others, including a splendid turn by Keeley Hawes in a role that consists of little more than labor pains and screaming--and one American: Gillian Anderson in a couple of wonderful scenes, one as herself and the other as the Widow Wadman.

As one of the actors observes in the film, Laurence Sterne had written "a post-modern novel before modernism had even been invented," and Winterbottom honors that admirably.
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could it have been done any better? probably not
michael-sj-lee16 July 2006
In trying to film a movie based on the novel Tristam Shandy, it is explained that this book is utterly unfilmable. modestly rather, they show the actual process of trying to make this movie while discussing the parts of the book that displayed meaning so they can decide what scenes will be added/cut in the movie. Cleverly enough, this entire process serves as a metaphor for the actual book and the digressive nature of it. Maybe not the most interesting topic to watch, but it is done well enough for you to be curious as to how everything is resolved. If you don't get the metaphor, you will not like the movie. If you do, you might be as delighted as ever that something quite unique has just been viewed.

didn't i just sound ridiculous?
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Shandy by halves
Prismark103 November 2013
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was published in the mid 1750s and can be described as postmodern before the term was invented.

The book is a ramble and regarded as unfilmable.

Enter Frank Cottrell Boyce and Michael Winterbottom. They are assisted by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan who adapted the book as a film within a film of the book.

Anyone familiar with the BBC series The Trip, also directed by Winterbottom and starring Brydon and Coogan as versions of themselves will be acquainted with the set up.

They both tease, spar, cajole each other and do impressions.

You have scenes relating to the birth of Tristram Shandy and some of it is comical and amusing. You have a battle scene with literally tens of people and suddenly the filmmakers manage to get Gillian Anderson on board as Widow Wadman which leads to an increased budget

As the film goes on, Coogan's personal life comes under scrutiny with a newspaper hack chasing him about a kiss and tell story. Madchester TV stalwart and music mogul Tony Wilson appears as himself giving a testy interview to Coogan. Stephen Fry later drops by as a know it all.

By the latter part of the film it just fizzles out, as if the actual writer and director ran out of gas and this viewer lost interest.

Maybe there was a good reason why the novel was unfilmable.
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barnaby-76 January 2006
One of the funniest and strangest films about the film-making process, this is less an adaptation of the novel, more a focused and hilarious deconstruction on Winterbottom's working methods. Coogan and Brydon are fantastic. The scene with Coogan and a hot chestnut down his trousers is worth the price of admission alone! Although the film may not be to everyone's taste - it darts around and has little respect for narrative logic or continuity (as does the book), it is a freeform little gem that really does cement Winterbottom's reputation as the most exciting British director out there. Any person who can make In This World, Code 46, 9 Songs and then this in a row is worthy of respect.
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Unfilmable book according to Michael Winterbottom
jotix1006 February 2006
Tristram Shandy, the complex novel, by Laurence Sterne, comes to the screen thanks to the adaptation and direction of Micahel Winterbottom, a man that likes to take risks. The idea of mixing the goings on of a film being made based on the novel, and the people behind the project presents some original ideas about what goes on behind the scenes.

This film within a film, showcases the talents of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two funny English comedians that haven't been seen much on this side of the Atlantic, but who are quite well known in the U.K.

The Sterne novel is just a pretext for making sense of the book, which presents tremendous challenge to the movie makers. On the one level we see the story of the birth of the hero of the novel, and on the other, we watch a somewhat conceited actor going through the process of the filming as he and the company socialize in a posh hotel.

The basic premise of the film presents a problem with American audiences drawn to the film by the good notices it received from the local critics. Judging the reaction of the audience the other day at the Angelika, one wonders if the film was understood as almost no laughter could be heard in response to some of the clever and funny things happening on the screen. In fact, it seems baffling to this viewer the response of what appeared to be an audience of mostly cool NYU students.

What Mr. Winterbottom gets is excellent acting from most of this multi talented cast. Steve Coogan, with his deadpan delivery, and Rob Brydon, his sidekick, come out as the winners. Their timing is impeccable and their chemistry is real. Some of the other people in the cast include Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Kelly MacDonald, Ian Hart, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Gillian Anderson and some other talented English actors, too many to mention all.

The excellent musical score by Michael Nyman enhances all what we are watching. Marcel Zyskind's cinematography gives the right look to the film. Ultimately, all credit for making the film the fun it is goes to Michael Winterbottom.
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Fantastically funny
tothemoonandbak20 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Went to see the premiere in North Yorkshire and it was absolutely brilliant!!!Much better and much funnier than I ever expected as I had anticipated quite a complex 'drama' type storyline based on my feeble attempts to read the book. It was fantastic though and I will definitely be getting the DVD. The DVD and it's extras were mentioned a lot, but nothing was said about it being released at the I don't know if that's still happening? I was extremely surprised by the whole thing actually, as I have tried several times to read the book and I just don't understand was expecting to not understand the film either, but it was did jump around a bit, but he told you when he was getting ahead of himself so you always knew where you were and it was easy to follow.

The blank page was discussed when they were talking about how to make the film longer...and they showed a blank screen for a few moments before deciding that the audience wouldn't find it that was then that they decided that they would include the Widow Wadman scenes and talked about who should play her.

Rob Brydon then had quite a funny scene with Steve Coogan saying that he couldn't possibly do the love scenes with Gillian Anderson as he has posters of her and owns the entire XF collection and she is his absolute complete ideal woman and how he has sexual feelings for her which I found rather funny.

So yeah, it was incredibly funny! I have never laughed that much at a film in my entire life. The funniest parts were between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves, and as Michael Winterbottom told us in the Q+A afterwards, they were pretty much ad-libbed. Also liked the scene in the barn where they lowered Steve Coogan upside down into massive fake womb...and then proceeded to have an argument with him about how realistic it was! :-)
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Errr, taxi for Coogan !
rhsymonds19 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
OK, so it might not be one of the worst films I've ever seen. But that doesn't mean i have to like it. I'm a fan of Steve Coogan and have been for years, but this film was absolute rubbish. I watch many films, sometimes 3 a day, and this is one of the few times i had to consider switching off before the end (like Ultraviolet and HP-Goblet of Fire).

Granted, there are several funny scenes, and granted its based on a book.

BUT FOR GODS SAKE, why would you make a film this boring ? I'm not sure if its the editing (done in the style of the book) but i would happily agree, that "Tristram shandy" is indeed, impossible to make into a film, so why would they bother ? All i saw was Coogan and Brydon making mediocre jokes (sometimes doing the same joke to death in one scene) and supporting cast with no real characters in, apart from Mark Williams of the Fast Show as a detail-mad Historian.

Maybe Coogan should hang up his traffic cone ?

Only funny bits for me were Brydons impressions of Coogan, and Pacino, and the Hot Chestnut incident. But they are not enough to save this crap film.

Finally, after reading other reviews, id like to add, Anyone who berates the viewers intelligence for disliking this film, or blames it on the fact they haven't read the book, is a pretentious moron who obviously thinks too highly of themselves, even those with the lowest IQ should be able to appreciate a moving picture.

Avoid it like the plague.
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best literature adaptation in ages
filmfan7514 September 2005
Smart, funny, original. I just saw this at the Toronto Film Festival tonight, and was really impressed. Great and hilarious performances, especially by Steve Coogan, who is SO funny. But Rob Brydon is almost as great, and the two of them have a great rapport.

The film really captures the anarchistic spirit of the book. Hard to imagine that anyone could come up with an idea to bring this unusual book to the screen, and Michael Winterbottom hasn't been the most consistent of directors lately (or ever, really) but this is a winner. The story is told in several layers: a film is being made of the novel "Tristram Shandy", starring Steve Coogan as both Tristram and his father Walter Shandy, but the behind the scenes drama of the making of the film is an important component. And lots of parallels with the various players real lives (Steve Coogan and lap dancers, etc.) Incredibly clever. Definitely check it out.
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Lots of Cleverness and some Wit but -- I do fear -- not quite enough Shandy
Chris Knipp17 November 2005
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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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
bob the moo6 February 2006
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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Oh, how post-modern, darling...
dmgrundy20 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The publicity and acclaim for this film circles round the notion that director Michael Winterbottom is filming an 'unfilmable' novel (Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy'), making a witty post-modern exercise in cleverness with in-jokes, references to other films and echoes of other films about the making of films (Fellini's 8 1/2), inane comic banter, etc. But, for me, that that smacks of defensiveness and self-justification, a worry that the way this book has been approached is something that might have sounded good in practise, but doesn't work well in theory because it is too flimsy a way of working, too narrow a view of what the book is about to construct an entire film around. I'll expand: in fact, the first 20 minutes or so make a decent stab of filming the book, switching backwards and forwards in time (breaking the linear narrative structure that most films tend to use in a far more complicated way than the flashbacks you sometimes get), having Steve Coogan (as Tristram) give direct to camera addresses as he narrates the story of his character's life, and with different actors playing the same characters (Coogan, as Tristram, announces that he is also going to play his father, as there is a 'family resemblance' - a nice touch whereby he acknowledges that he is acting but remains 'in character') - certainly not that conventional, but not as irrelevant as the rest of the film, which comes across a bit like an episode of Ricky Gervais' TV series 'Extras' without the sharp social observation and cringe-worthy brilliance.

The problems start when, without warning, in a pregnancy scene, we suddenly hear 'Cut' and see the film crew, whereupon we are rushed backstage as Coogan, now playing himself, goes to various meetings, doesn't have sex with his girlfriend, deals with a journalist who knows that he DID have sex with a pole-dancer (this a particularly puzzling incident, treated in a surprisingly casual way), cracks jokes with co-star Rob Brydon, complains about his costume, and so on, ad infinitum. We see Coogan and and Brydon sitting in a viewing theatre, along with various other people involved with the film's making, commenting on the rushes of the film they're making ("that battle looks like it's been filmed with about 10 men") - of course, this is a scene which is actually in the film we're watching - oh how clever and postmodern... - such touches abound. It's all very obvious, and must have sounded good in theory - "we'll echo the dislocation of the book by making a dislocated film", but it really doesn't work in practise. In one scene, Coogan is being interviewed about the film he is making:

Tony Wilson: Why "Tristram Shandy"? This is the book that many people said is unfilmable. Steve Coogan: I think that's the attraction. "Tristram Shandy" was a post-modern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about. So it was way ahead of its time and, in fact, for those who haven't heard of it, it was actually listed as number eight on the Observer's top 100 books of all time. Tony Wilson: That was a *chronological* list.

The problem with this is that we're not sure how seriously to take it. Is the joke, poking fun at Coogan's lack of knowledge of the project he's at work on, merely there for a laugh? Is Winterbottom making his points through interviewer Wilson's mouth (in which case, wow. Yes we know it's ahead-of-its-time, but is there any intrinsic value in that?) Is it a comment on the way we try to categorise and pigeonhole 'greatness'? Such ambiguity characterises much of the film - nothing wrong with ambiguity, but it helps if it has a discernible purpose (even if that purpose has to be dug out carefully, with an intellectual scalpel). To me, what we have is ultimately the sight and sound (oh! film-related reference! did you notice?) of a smug and self-satisfied director making yet another in-joke to be trendy and post-modern about being trendy and post-modern...

This impressions is exacerbated by the glimpses we get of what they're filming (a battle scene, Stephen Fry as Parson Yorrick, Coogan as Tristram suspended in a giant womb), which suggest that it would have been a much more satisfying viewing experience to make 'the film of the book' rather than the faked behind-the-scenes/acted film masquerading as documentary of the making of the film of the book...

So, to sum up. The plot summary here on IMDb says this: "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." This last sentence is roughly what Stephen Fry says when he suddenly pops up to explain what the novel is 'about'. It's a bizarre moment - almost as if Winterbottom is worried the audience won't 'get' what he's doing, so he's trying to smooth their brows and reassure them that there's a point to all this. But I'm not convinced it needed to be done this way - for me, all the behind-the-scenes ramblings doesn't really get us anywhere. The book was packed with incident and character - this has a fair amount of incident, but few very interesting characters (especially as we know that Coogan and Brydon are playing fairly unsympathetic versions of themselves and are thus 'not really like that'), and if all it's there for is to say, if it can condense the whole book into just the one idea - that life is too full to be captured in one narrative - then I'm not convinced it's worth doing.
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Please read the book, don't bother with this smug, shallow film
nick-40120 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I saw A Cock & Bull Story at the London Film Festival last year. The film should do well: it's been very heavily publicised, has well-known comedy actors in it, and - when I saw it - the packed house loved it. The film is enjoyable primarily because of Steve Coogan's and Rob Brydon's seemingly ad-libbed comedy, but as a version of - or even tribute to - Sterne's Tristram Shandy it fails miserably. The film barely grasps the character of this (anti-) novel at all. I blame director Michael Winterbottom for this. The book's tangential narratives are too briefly handled in the first half to leave the viewer with any real sense of Tristram's gargantuan project. The film's first half races along at breakneck pace, presumably to suggest a mad-cap hilarious confusion to Tristram's narrative - but all I was left with was the feeling that the director was terrified Joe Public might be bored by the boring old eighteenth century. The all-too-jaunty pace suggests a lack of faith in the novel's comedy and a lack of faith in the viewer's intelligence. Tristram Shandy is a very funny book and the humour is evident without such forced jauntiness. Sterne is a notably playful and generous novelist, he loves his readers and never displays a lack of faith in them. The film's lack of faith, in itself as well as in its audience, is also evident in its rendering of the famous black page - discussed by director, writer and actors as to whether it is possible to put the trope of a black page into a film at all. Suddenly the screen goes black! ... but the soundtrack remains and the discussion continues, for five seconds before the audience is reassuringly given back the visuals again. If Winterbottom had Sterne's resolve and experimental touch he would have kept the screen black without sound for, say, fifteen seconds. Making your audience uncomfortable doesn't mean you don't respect them! And what of the actual discussion of the viability of putting the black page in the film? A more courageous experimental film/director wouldn't have flinched from doing it, let alone chat about it in an oh-so funny way. Can you imagine Godard having such qualms? The other big problem with this film is its film-within-a-film conceit. It's all about the impossibility of getting a film made and of faithfully rendering Tristram Shandy, which itself is about the impossibility of faithfully rendering the complexity of life - geddit? If you don't, Stephen Fry is on hand to explain this to you in the manner of a patient uncle at the end of the film. Not only is this a wretched simplification of the book's theme about art and artifice but this theme is itself just one amongst many themes in the book. Tristram Shandy handles these themes with humour and experimental elan but A Cock & Bull Story sticks rigidly to its one theme, wearily restating it again and again (rather than going any deeper) in a way that is more listless than joyfully experimental. What follows on screen is a sort of comedy soap-opera of the prurience that is wrapped up with celebrity (something that has nothing to do with the novel). Some of this soap-opera is indeed very funny, but not as funny as, say, Marion & Geoff or Alan Partridge. If Winterbottom had tried to stick to the novel - a truly courageous and difficult undertaking - instead of heading into the usual fundament-gazing about media and celebrity that masquerades as analysis and filmic experimentation then A Cock & Bull Story would have been wonderful. As it is, the film is rather like what Steve Coogan, put on the spot by Tony Wilson, says about the novel: 'I suppose it's kind of ... a postmodern masterpiece before, er, there was any modern to be post about.' A nice joke, but one that resounds hollow when applied to the film itself. In other words, the film is generally a load of Bull: read the book instead! Corporal Trim
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Just Bull
tedg25 October 2006
Oh gosh, what a disappointment. Its something like that Peter Fonda "Tempest" set in the Bayou. It has the same fabric as the play's outer dressing and none of the muscle and blood of the thing.

Alas. One of our most intelligent filmmakers, someone who thinks about film and actually has new, clever ideas. Pay attention to "9 Songs" — if you can — and you'll be blown away. And one of our richest books. We don't have many in English, now that Ireland is a theme park for tourists. This book is not only folded in marvelous, manifold ways (many would say self- referential, but that's unduly limiting), it is a milestone in literature absolutely.

The problem with the film is aptly noted in the film. At some point, they decided that every effect, every narrative overlay, would be done for comic effect and no other. So. You'll find this amusing, slightly, with only one style of humor served up a couple different ways.

You will find better humor that plays with these notions elsewhere. At least, in true folded form, they tell us why in the film. Its because the guys in charge only understand "funny." There are some wonderful metabits where "deep" cinematic effect is brought up in discussions and the "guys in charge" are completely oblivious. It isn't like that opening scene in "The Player" where cinematic pretense is made fun of, and then ruthlessly exploited. No. Here the film really does ignore everything it was intended to be.

I'll have to wait, I suppose, for a Winterbottom project that has a less clever source, so he can add his own notions, rather than be faced with a warehouse of attitudes and only grab those on the bottom shelf.

Every scene with Naomie Harris is worth watching, in content and style. The rest, well, watch "The Company" instead if you just want to laugh, of "Singing Detective" if you want Shandy in film.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
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much funny ado about nothing and everything
coffeeandcigarettes23 February 2006
Forget anything pedagogical that this film's title might unfortunately imply and as a result keep butts out of seats. it is wildly entertaining, ribald, and simply fun, fun, fun. all of which Sterne intended. the addition of the play within the play within the play is really brilliant.

I loved the behind the scenes bits of story that had to do with the failure of the film's execution-particularly the whole shoe business. By far the greatest bit was the piece about acting techniques. Steve Coogan at first imagines what hot (as in temperature) walnuts- or some type of nut-would feel like dropped down his trousers and caught next to his genitals. He tries many interpretations but the one that slayed the audience was when he actually dropped the "hot nuts" into his trousers in order to see how close his interpretation came to the actual reaction. it was uproariously entertaining.

i was wondering if winterbottom and gilliam have ever thought to produce something together? please sir may we have some more?
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Save your money
a-jones-226 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Very slow, tedious, with to be fair, the odd comedy line. The comment that the book is un-filmable should be enough to question whether you should use your cash for approx 90mins of boredom.

Good support from Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, Naomi Harris and others.

Probably good for film festival go-ers, but your average John Doe/Joe Bloggs will struggle to survive, as did approximately 50% of my fellow audience participants that left at various stages through the agony that is truly 'A Cock and Bull Story'.

Definitely avoid it.
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Not For The Scary Movie-Style Crowd
fwomp28 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is a pretty tough review to write, mainly because this film definitely won't be for the general population. If you like potty humor and in-your-face laughs, avoid this movie. TRISTRAM SHANDY is a thinking man's comedy, with jokes inside jokes inside jokes.

For those who aren't familiar with the title (THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN), this is in reference to the 18th century literary paperweight composing nine volumes written by Laurence Sterne (famous author John Updike has been quoted as saying, "It's the one novel I want to read before I die"). Considered a "comedy ahead of its time," it caught on quickly with the upper class and became quite a success. But as times changed so did the literary climate, and now the volumes are seen as ...well ...voluminous. Attempting to make a coherent film out of something so incoherently nonlinear certainly would present a challenge, too, so I was quite surprised to see that the books had been translated to the silver screen.

Or so I thought...

The amazing thing about this movie is that it did something completely unexpected: it stayed true to Laurence Sterne's style (being possibly the first example of "stream of consciousness" writing) but did so by not attempting to tell the story of Tristram Shandy at all. I found this to be one of the funniest aspects of the movie. I could picture the directors and producers in a room talking about the impossibility of turning the books into film and then someone saying, "Hey, why don't we not even try?" So, in the spirit of its original author, that's exactly what these film makers did.

The story starts out with a film maker (Steve Coogan, director) trying to tell the story of Tristram Shandy while living a life within the movie itself. Basically, it's the story of a man trying to make a film about a film within a film. It can seem somewhat confusing as the audience is ripped through scenes, unsure of where and — most importantly — when they are. To try and tell you how the movie flows would be absolutely impossible, because it has no flow ...and yet it does. The laughs are surprising and often hidden, so a watcher might have to view it several times before connecting with all of the gags (the only exception being when they try to show how funny the film's going to be by dropping a hot chestnut down a man's pants ...seeing that might be worth the price of admission for some).

I was surprisingly riveted to the screen throughout the movie, worried that I might miss something (Is the battle scene over? Will it be in the film they're trying to make? Will there be a love scene with Gillian Anderson?).

I think this film might get panned by quite a few professional reviewers because it is so different than anything we're used to as movie-goers. But the high comedy can't be denied. It's sheer genius how it all came together (and watch for the running joke on poor British dental hygiene throughout the film).
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Really is a load of Cock
lodgej10 July 2006
I'm a huge fan of both Coogan and Brydon. Inspired by their spontaneously funny interviews promoting this film, I gathered a few friends and went off to the big screen to view. WHAT A DISAPPOINTMENT. Laugh out loud funny? Mildy amusing in only two places does not warrant a comedy label. This is a protracted, painful and just plan boring movie. Coogan and Brydon have so much more to offer, I'd have rather watched the two of them ad-lib over a pint. Half the party viewing with me fell asleep and I was left feeling like an idiot for recommending such drivel. Don't WASTE YOUR TIME. This is overstuffed pompous drivel at its worst. Coogan's foray onto the big movie screen has not been exactly successful- but at least his previous attempts were watchable. I want the 2hrs I wasted watching this back. AVOID.
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Aptly named "Cock and bull"
johnflagg6 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I realised when the film first started that this was going to be "one of those movies". Starting with the logo for "The works", showing three interlocking gear wheels, which if this was made in reality, would not work. The same has to be said for this film.

This is a film of indulgence, self indulgence. On the part of the titles people, making "different" lettering. Unreadable, but different.

Then the two "stars" being different, Coogan and Brydon offering a feast of pointless observation starting in the first scene about the colour of Brydon's teeth while in the make up department. Why, I will never know.

Then being different, talking to screen with a pointless dialogue, about....."but then I will tell you of this later"....which never came.

Jumping from an eighteenth? century battle, to before Tristram Shandy was borne, (Oh by the way, that is who this film was supposed to be about), then accompanied by twenty first century film crew mixing with the characters, then back again to the film, and so on, and NO STORY.

The only laughs I could detect were the ones from the owners of the mobile catering company, who must have made a FORTUNE out of all this, laughing all the way to THEIR bank.

A different film, like being different by going to work naked. Different, but who cares?

My suggestion, save your money, go buy a beer.
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Funny, but far too many in-jokes
TheNorthernMonkee6 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
SPOILERS The unfilmable novel. There are so many books out there that are so mammoth, there's no way it can ever be filmed. Always forced to miss events out, unable to capture the emotions, there's loads of reasons why particular books can't be turned into cinema. Still, that's no reason not to try.

Rather than trying to actually film the actual book of "Tristram Shandy", director Michael Winterbottom has hit upon a superb idea. Turning the trial of the filming into a film in it's own right, Winterbottom has created a fun piece of entertainment. At the same time however, as a result of the participation of Steve Coogan, far too many jokes are a direct reference to his former comic hit Alan Partridge. This in itself is a direct stab at how people perceive him, but it's only really needed once, not however multiple times we get it.

Michael Winterbottom (Jeremy Northam) is filming the unfilmable. Hiring Steve Coogan to play Tristrum Shandy and Rob Brydon as Captain Toby Shandy, he's gathered two great actors to play two great roles. How much of the film actually needs to be made though, and is it really that possible? From the offset, you can tell the film is going to be funny. Thanks to the magnificent pairing of Coogan and Brydon, you've fallen off your chair in laughter five times before the film has even properly began. It's a daft affair and that partnership really drives the story perfectly.

That is, the film would be hilarious if we could get past Alan Partridge. The Coogan character of many years, for so much of the film we are constantly given Rob Brydon's impression. The first time we hear it, there is a knowing laugh. After multiple times though, and the joke begins to get lame. It's a repetitive joke, and even for those in the know, it gets incredibly tiresome.

Still, aside from the in-jokes, the film can be funny for long periods. Aiding Coogan, Brydon and Northam are the best of British comedy. Ronni Ancona, Keeley Hawes, Dylan Moran, Shirley Henderson and David Walliams, the list goes on. Add to the magnificent list a brief appearance by Gillian Anderson (and thus a few "X-Files" jokes) and you know the story is going to be good.

Often funny, but perhaps too focused on the repetitive poke at cast history, "Tristram Shandy" is a clever enough film. It'll keep the audience entertained, and it'll leave you with a smile on your face. That's all you need really.
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desert-dry, unstructured
onepotato226 July 2006
Tristram Shandy is a rare event in the mainstream media. A comedy... aimed at adults... based on a classic novel. For that it should be applauded. It has it's moments and it's target audience is likely to find it infinitely preferable to an Adam Sandler movie, as I do. But when all is said and done I can't tell you any benefit this layering provides. The Tristram Shandy movie is rapidly abandoned in deference to a "not-making of" sidebar, which turns the movie into a Steve Coogan vehicle in exactly the same way that Click is an Adam Sandler vehicle.

Since Tristram Shandy is unfilmable, you need to be satisfied with a movie will stay on Tristrams birth for so long, as in the book, that no other plot point will be covered. Instead we cut to the "real-world" plot which deals with a "too many chiefs" plot line, where Coogan toys with the never-before investigated idea that actors are vain, self-absorbed people. (Jack Benny called. He wants his material back) This is not a rich vein to mine jokes from. Yeah, the humor is better and more sophisticated than a Touchstone comedy and to my great relief there isn't a fart joke in the whole movie, but in case it slipped your mind, straight guys are still very anxious about homosexuality. Isn't that terrific? Gosh I really hope we can get 5,000 more years of lazy jokes out of that idea.

So it's not Tristram Shandy; which is too bad because the movie they are making is pretty funny. Instead a viewer must be contented with Coogans desert-dry musings and a fairly flat rivalry with his friend. As with most movies the first hour reflects more thought, humor and tighter editing than the rest which falls to pieces.

Accusations of originality in the reviews here are bewildering. The "making of" 2nd storyline is now the de-rigeur, accepted, post-modern story structure exhausted in three dozen other better movies. Every time you rent a DVD and watch any of the extra materials you're as post-modern as this movie is. That's how limp it is in terms of originality.

Even conceptually it's ripping off a previous movie, Lost in LaMancha, by Terry Gilliam, (a director whose work I haven't been able to bear since the beginning) which was about an unmake-able movie of Don Quixote. The contrast between the Tristram Shandy characters and the actors is used to (what else?) show the parallels between them. This is lifted from any number of movies but let's go with the once over-rated, now forgotten "French Leiutenant's Woman." It's unsatisfying in both.

Steve Coogan has a plain but handsome & open face. I'd like to see him play a dramatic role and really commit to something.
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crock and bullsh*t ego rub story.
come2whereimfrom27 April 2006
If you want a laugh I suggest you steer clear of this film. I can honestly say I almost left half way through because of boredom. It is not only an exercise in stroking the egos of the actors and the director but it is also trying to be far too clever which results in a film that doesn't engage the audience. Film within a film, in jokes blah blah blah. Everything that this film is trying to do was done much better and much funnier in 'extras' the Ricky Gervais sitcom. Considering I love so many of the faces in this film it hurts me to say that no one really stands outs or gives a good performance, Coogan is overblown, Bryden boring, Moran drunk? Fry under-used and Anderson out of place. All in all this is another British example of how not to make a film. The director of such beautiful films as 'Wonderland' and 'Welcome to Sarajevo' really needs to look long and hard at himself because he hasn't made a decent film in years and this does nothing to dispel that fact.
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lowbrow rollicking comedy about carnal issues of penis injury, childbirth agony, and interpersonal relationships
nebulousbox-imdb31 January 2006
Not good enough.

There are two levels of humor here, one involving film production, and one basic to the Tristram Shandy story. There is humor in this kind of juxtaposition, especially in the contrast between the actor of Tristram and his father, and the life of their actors. But it doesn't stand out as anything special, and the dramatic quality is too shallow, if you have been seeing other recent films. The level of humor of the Tristram Shandy story itself reminds me of Vaudeville.

The broken disjointed aspect of the story telling could have been fascinating (e.g. Memento), but in this case it acted as a barrier to getting involved in the characters and the story, because you jump away just as your interest is growing.

The funniest parts were contrasting the life of Tristram's father and the life of the actor, the womb scenes, and the scenes in the closing credits. Also, people in the industry might enjoy the behind-the-scenes back-story about actor rivalries, costuming issues, etc.

I feel this could have been so much better. As it was, I feel like I had endured an unpleasant theme park ride which was lightened up only by the scenes included during the credits.
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