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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