'Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" is a film about the difficulty of making a film based on a book about the difficulty of writing a book. But mostly, it's a bawdy rout through the boundaries of stories, storytelling, movies and moviemaking, breaking down celebrity, and the toadying and the viciousness it inspires.
The movie's main purpose, if it has one, is to question its purpose -- which makes it not only fun and refreshingly unassuming, but also the perfect antidote to all the stately, straight-faced, upscale movie product floating down the red carpet these days like barges down the Yangtze River.
Based on Laurence Sterne's postmodern novel, "written before there was any modernism to be post about," it features the character of Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan) playing Tristram Shandy. Of course, describing the movie highlights some of the difficulties the fictional Tristram and the fictional Michael Winterbottom encountered in telling it: Namely, where to begin? We first see Coogan and Rob Brydon in makeup, arguing over whether Brydon's part is a "co-lead" or a supporting role. Coogan plays the title character, which makes him, ostensibly, the star of the picture, as his character keeps trying to reassure himself, the audience and his co-star Brydon. Brydon plays himself as well as Tristram's Uncle Toby in the film within the film, an important role that stokes all of Coogan's leading-man insecurities. (Not that he's not in almost every scene, as he also plays Tristram's father, Walter.)
Like Tristram's attempts to tell his story, the process of making the film is maddeningly distracting and digressive. Over the course of the production, it gets shot, re-shot, rethought, rewritten and partially recast before it's finally screened in front of a smattering of disgruntled actors, consultants and producers. The result frustrates everyone from the war re-enactment buffs who consulted on the battle scenes to the American star (Gillian Anderson, playing herself), who gets hauled in at the last minute for a romantic subplot.
What's the point? The answer escapes Winterbottom (the character) as well.
"Why do we want to spend a year of our lives making this film?" he asks his core crew, frustrated with the demands and frustrations of everyone around him. "Because it's funny," someone replies.
"Is that all?"
"Is that not enough?"
The film satirizes the movie business, but it does so affectionately, mostly because the business offers such irresistible targets. For a movie about movies, it's surprisingly humanistic, cheerful and true to life.
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