A Cock And Bull Story Review

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Steve Coogan stars in an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s ‘unfilmable’ 18th century novel, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, playing a man who sets out to narrate the story of his life and affairs but finds it hard to get past his messy

★★★★

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Just when you think you’ve got a fix on Michael Winterbottom, he’s made three more completely different films. A downside to this hyperactivity is that many of his quickie experiments
(9 Songs) just don’t come off, but this reteaming (after 24 Hour Party People) with Steve Coogan is one of Winterbottom’s most entertaining pictures, even though it’s still an ambitious and intelligent effort to cope with a novel that’s one of the cornerstones of English literature.

It cannily tackles Sterne’s book by dramatising choice extracts, finding a film equivalent for its deliberately self-defeating detours and stirring in a thread about making the movie to add yet more layers of critical and comical discourse.

Steve Coogan plays Tristram and his father Walter, while Rob Brydon (Marion And Geoff’s Keith Barret) takes the role of the unassertive Uncle Toby — but both also play funny versions of themselves. Coogan constantly complains that people who make fun of him get him confused with Alan Partridge, but this only makes him appear more like his pathetic, self-defeating sit-com character, especially when his family-man act is undermined by revelations about his night with lap-dancer “Hedda Gobbler”. The shift of power between the stars is deftly, hilariously handled, with a major unsaid fact (that Coogan hasn’t read the book) setting up a nastily delightful late development involving a game Gillian Anderson.

The behind-the-scenes sections have the feel of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, affording funny or poignant moments to edge-of-frame characters like the historical adviser (Mark Williams) camply fuming over the rampant inaccuracies in the battle scenes, the Fassbinder-worshipping runner Coogan fancies (Naomie Harris), or the quietly downtrodden director (Jeremy Northam).

Meanwhile, the Shandy scenes, played at several levels of exaggeration (one turns out to be a Coogan nightmare, in which Brydon sounds like Roger Moore), perfectly catch Sterne’s free-association way of telling a tale, so that the telling comes to the fore and the story itself repeatedly gets lost. The film shifts through epitomising, deconstructing and parodying the English heritage drama movie genre (to which Winterbottom contributed Jude) and pokes gentle fun at the film business, with petty power-struggles on location and everyone fumbling towards a picture they know isn’t going to turn out well.

A successful mix of literary adaptation, meta-fictional discourse and inside-showbiz comedy. Both funny and clever.