Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (2006)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Ensemble Film, Showbiz Comedy, Period Film  |   Release Date - Jan 27, 2006 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 94 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom   |   MPAA Rating - R
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For his second faux-documentary collaboration with Steve Coogan in four years, Michael Winterbottom presents perhaps his most ambitious film to date -- a self-reflexive narrative about filming, or the failure to film, a classic bit of literary whimsy whose narrator is not even born for much of his own "autobiography." Not surprisingly, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story takes on the unstructured quality of its source material. This works -- up to a point. Winterbottom ensconces the audience in a delirious array of ironies and conundrums, fits and starts, and minor dramas on the set, but then kind of gives up on the film within the film. Instead, he shifts his second half to an inn where the cast and crew are staying, highlighting their petty squabbles and moments of ugly vanity -- which are supposed to be "real," since certain actors (Coogan, Rob Brydon, Gillian Anderson) are playing "themselves." While this portion is entertaining in its own right, the audience can't help but miss the promise of the first half, in which an adult Shandy narrates his own birth, among other clever bits. After their work together on 24 Hour Party People, Coogan is clearly on board with his director's agenda -- it's quite sporting that he plays himself as an egotistical letch, even allowing "Steve Coogan" to be plagued by a sex scandal. But ultimately, the back-room dealings of movie industry people is not as interesting a goal as Winterbottom set out to achieve, and at its worst, feels a tad self-congratulatory. Of course, this shifting of narrative gears is part of Winterbottom's winking acknowledgement that the novel is, indeed, unfilmable. The director adeptly juggles all these levels of meaning, but after laying some terrific groundwork, Tristram Shandy doesn't have quite the sublime follow through its audience might expect.