Review by Paul Stathakis | March 29, 2006

“Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.”- William Holden in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.”

Those who watch “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” will surely recall Holden’s words since, more often that not, the characters in this movie seem to be inventing their lines as they go along. The actors are charming and, consequently, so are their performances. What is even more amusing is how the actors deliver their lines in a natural fashion. Many may wonder whether or not the film is scripted. It is.

The film is based on Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” This is not exactly an adaptation of a distinguished novel, but an attempt. This is a film about the making of a film. It makes no mistake by inviting viewers into the chaotic life of an actor on a set of a movie.

Steve Coogan, like Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “Dr. Strangelove”, occupies three roles. He stars as himself, an unborn Tristram Shandy, and Tristram’s father. Initially, Coogan’s three parts seem confusing. Perhaps that is the reason why 24 people exited the theater after the first half hour. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is an unconventional British comedy and it demands tolerant viewers who are open to diverse storytelling techniques.

Rob Brydon is another actor who is given two roles: one as himself and the other as Tristram’s uncle Toby. Brydon tries to convince Coogan that his role is a co-lead and not simply a supporting one. The opening scene shows both actors in what appears to be their dressing room. Brydon examines his teeth in the mirror and argues about their coloration. To him, they seem Tuscan yellow or a color that can be used to decorate a child nursery. Later in the film, Brydon claims that Coogan’s favorite actor is Roger Moore and that Coogan borrows a great deal from Moore’s acting. Then Coogan is interviewed. He discusses Sterne’s novel and throws in a DVD joke. And one of the characters makes an amusing reference to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. The actors thrive on such moments and the jokes work well because they always surface at the right times.

The film doesn’t neglect any of its main characters, and give explanations of the source on which it is based. How Tristram got his name or why his nose looks the way it does are two things we learn and smile about, even though the scene involving the nose is pretty gruesome. Jumping back and forth between the 18th century and the wretched efforts of the 21st century filmmakers, Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is clever right down to the last frame.

Towards the end of the movie, the production team wants to hire a notable actress. One executive claims that she would cost more than the actual battle scenes in the script. Still, they sign the actress. This results in an unexpected cameo role. Observe Brydon’s reaction when he learns about the actress joining the cast. He believes he won’t be able to do a love scene with her because there is a strong chance he might blush.

The closing images show Coogan and Brydon in an empty screening room. They converse about strong actors like Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, and even Barbara Streisand. Brydon imitates Pacino accurately. But Coogan thinks his Pacino imitation is more truthful. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is about actors on a film set who know actors, talk about actors, speak like actors, and who exist because of other actors. It’s an astonishing idea and a successful film experiment.

 

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