Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: 2006, dir. Michael Winterbottom. Seen Oct. 25, 2005 at The Paramount (Austin Film Festival).
I tried to read the book Tristram Shandy a few years ago. I remember taking it to brunch at Z Tejas downtown, back when I liked to go out to brunch alone every weekend. It was one of the few times I sat at a table and not at a bar; I guess my favorite bartender at the time wasn’t there. Or maybe the bar was just too crowded that day.
I remember, also, that it was one of the few times I strayed from the gloriousness of the breakfast quesadilla, my favorite brunch treat at Z Tejas. (The corned-beef hash is pretty good too, though.) I had the Navajo tacos, on someone’s recommendation. I didn’t like them much at all. The fried spinach thing just weirded me out. It was not a successful meal, although normally I’m quite fond of Z Tejas … the one downtown, that is. The north location, although closer to our house, has abysmal acoustics and I nearly lose my voice if I try to hold a conversation in there.
So perhaps that fateful brunch affected my opinion of Tristram Shandy. Admittedly I thought the book would be a straightforward narrative comedy like Tom Jones. I had no idea what I was getting into. All the digressions started to annoy me. Were we ever going to get to the character’s birth? I finally gave up in frustration, perhaps a quarter of the way through the book. I realized that the whole point of the book was to be one long series of digressions, but I still wanted some linear action of some kind, and I never could motivate myself to finish the book. I suspected that the narrator never would get past the birth.

Nor have I ever had the Navajo tacos at Z Tejas again, although I love having brunch there. The banana-nut muffins are absolutely amazing, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t care much for muffins at all. I am more of a biscuit-and-honey person, and it is a real shame that Threadgill’s no longer serves their delicious biscuits except at Sunday brunch. Do you know how difficult it is to find a decent biscuit in this town? I honestly cannot recommend a single place for their biscuits.
Despite my never finishing the book Tristram Shandy, I was intrigued to hear about the movie adaptation, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I was eager to see how such a seemingly unadaptable book could be made into a movie. I can’t stand most adaptations but I often like to read the book and watch the film (not necessarily in that order … in fact, preferably not in that order at all) to see the decisions the writer and director made in adapting the book, what was left out, what worked better in one medium or the other, and so forth.
I suspected Tristram Shandy might be one of those movie adaptations that I would like better than the source material. Yes, there are times when I prefer the movie to the book, and not just The Godfather, either. I like the movie Matilda quite as much as the book; the same is true of Silence of the Lambs and Cold Comfort Farm. I’m fond of many adaptations of Jane Austen books, although I didn’t think much of Keira Knightley as Lizzy Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. In fact, that was probably my least favorite adaptation of a Jane Austen work ever, including the dull BBC version of Emma (the one with Kate Beckinsale and the Mr. Knightley who wasn’t as cute as Jeremy Northam) and the sexed-up Mansfield Park with Embeth Davidtz (speaking of Matilda … you can try all you want, but we’ll always remember you as the chick in Army of Darkness).
I had no idea Embeth Davidtz was born in Lafayette, Indiana (or so says IMDb); I thought she was British. I used to have a whole group of friends who had lived in or near Lafayette at one point or another, mostly Purdue alumni. Well, they’d attended Purdue, at least, although they might not have graduated. There was this one friend of their who lived in Lafayette in an apartment with a notorious sofa that transmitted scabies to everyone who sat on it. I’m not sorry I never visited Lafayette—not the Indiana city, anyway. I’ve been to Lafayette, Louisiana any number of times, usually driving through and wondering if there’s a decent place to eat there. Anyone have any recommendations? It would be a good place to stop on the trip back to Austin from the New Orleans area, but as much as my boyfriend might disagree with me, I’d prefer something other than a Waffle House for my road-trip meals.
My boyfriend and I cannot go to the Waffle House anymore without someone invoking the “You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut?” quote from the remake of The Ladykillers, inevitably followed by “We must have waffles forthwith!” I never have liked the waffles at Waffle House, but I’m extremely fond of the hash browns, scattered and smothered in onions.
Speaking of The Ladykillers, am I the only person who noticed that the poem the lead character plays fast-and-loose with in that movie is the same “phoney poem” used in Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful book The Loved One? Hee. That has to have been intentional. Those wacky Coens. And did you know that the film adaptation of The Loved One is not available on DVD? It’s a shame, even though I wasn’t fond of the movie at all. I think everyone should get a chance to experience the film at least once, and then decide to keep away from it forever. It could make an interesting double-feature with Kiss Me Stupid, though.
The adaptation of Tristram Shandy is faithful to the spirit of the book — a series of digressions and distractions. The filmmakers, however, do not limit themselves to the types of digressions in the book, but use the medium of cinema to go crazy. A scene from the book is interrupted by a “Cut!” from the director, played not by the film’s actual director, but by the ever-charming Jeremy Northam. I think Northam may be as close to Cary Grant as we are going to get anytime soon, although I’ve heard people say the same thing about Hugh Grant, George Clooney, and Matt Damon. Okay, I made up the Matt Damon thing because these lists always have to have three actors and I could only remember two. I should have picked Peter Sarsgaard instead. But I think a prime qualification for being the next Cary Grant must be that you look great in a tux, and that puts Clooney in the lead.
Anyway, the movie Tristram Shandy is what you might call post-modern, or maybe meta, depending on how you feel about those terms. (We do not use the term “po-mo” on this site, as it causes a rash.) The digressions, which take up most of the film, range from arguments about costumes to discussions over whether Gillian Anderson should be cast to insinuations about the lead actor’s private life. You never know if the next scene will actually be something from the book, an argument about shoe lifts, or a long segue into the cast and crew’s personal relationships with one another and their families.
Steve Coogan has the title role, although he also plays Tristram’s father and the character Steve Coogan. The interaction between Coogan and Rob Brydon (who plays himself as well as Tristram’s uncle) provides the movie with many of its funniest scenes. Stay for the end credits to hear them argue hilariously about Al Pacino in The Godfather. Although in all honesty, my favorite Godfather-related imitation is in the movie Sleeper, when Diane Keaton imitates Marlon Brando. It’s Brando in Streetcar but I figure she must have picked it up from Godfather the year before, and it is truly hilarious. I realize I ought to refer to A Streetcar Named Desire by its full name, or else you might think I am referring to the musical version in my favorite episode ever of The Simpsons. I hope my boyfriend will get home soon in time to watch The Simpsons with me tonight; even though the nightly reruns are somewhere in 2001 when the show is starting to suck a bit, we like sitting on the sofa together every night to watch the show.
The cast of Tristram Shandy includes many well-known British actors and actresses, or at least familiar faces. I already mentioned Jeremy Northam, and even Stephen Fry pops in for a moment. Sometimes I wonder if there is some unwritten rule that either Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie must appear in all British comedy films. Hugh Laurie is suddenly surprisingly popular these days in America because of his lead role in the TV show House. I ought to watch that show sometime, but it doesn’t look like my cup of tea, except for Laurie. I like him when he’s being funny, or causing other people to be funny.
Other reviewers have compared the movie to Adaptation because they both involve movies about/within movies, but Tristram Shandy doesn’t exude the oh-so-clever smarm about filmmaking in the way that Adaptation does. This is a funny movie, first and foremost. We are not allowed to mention Adaptation around my sister anymore; she had romantic associations with the movie, since she and her boyfriend got together during that film. (And I thought I had some odd film/romantic associations …) However, they broke up and he has been shown to be a first-class jerk, so my sister cannot bear to hear about Adaptation any longer. Good thing she doesn’t read this site.
Tristram Shandy is all over the place … just like this review. I wrote a straightforward review for Cinematical that you might prefer if you want to figure out whether you should see the film. I wrote a draft of that review earlier this week, then wondered if it wouldn’t be appropriate to write the review in the same style as the movie and the book, with digressions everywhere and comments on what I was creating and so forth. I thought that would be more original and fun.
However, I don’t think that as a rule, movie reviews should be exercises in authorial style. I don’t mind silly reviews for movies we all already know are bad, like the reviews of The Grinch Stole Christmas (or was it The Cat in the Hat) in which the reviewers decided to write their opinions in Seussian verse. (And why does everyone misspell the author’s name as “Suess”? It’s as bad as “Ghandi.” Drives me up the wall.)
I believe that a good movie review should help readers decide whether they want to see the film. You should be able to get an idea of the reviewer’s general opinion in the first couple of paragraphs. My boyfriend likes to use the Austin Chronicle reviews when we are determining which movie we want to see in a theater at a given time, and nothing irritates him more than having to dig through a long paragraph about the reviewer’s childhood, or the previous filmography of everyone involved in the movie, before getting to an actual opinion about the specified film. I am not trying to pick specifically on the Austin Chronicle here; every reviewer writes like this at some point, myself included. My point is that for a site like Cinematical, in which people use the movie reviews there as a reference, I do not feel it is right for me to publish a review that spends more time discussing cuisine than specific scenes from the film.
Damn, this was an excellent point to make about movie reviews, and I buried it in this endless goofy pretend-review of Tristram Shandy. I should copy the above paragraph and expand on it in another entry later.
As a reviewer, what I want you to know about Tristram Shandy, what I think will influence your decision to see the film and your enjoyment of the film if you do, is that it has this free-form chaotic movie-within-a-movie structure. If you realize this ahead of time and go into the movie without the expectation of a linear storyline, you won’t be discouraged.
That is, unless you live in Austin and you were planning to see Tristram Shandy this weekend on my recommendation. It’s only playing in New York right now, damn it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again myself, but I don’t think Austin gets the movie until Feb. 17. But we get Big Momma’s House 2 all over town this weekend. Life can be so cruel.
On the other hand, Austinites should be thankful that at least you don’t live in the New Orleans area, where very few independent or arthouse movies are playing until Canal Place Cinema reopens on Feb. 10. (Actually we should be thankful we don’t live in New Orleans for many more important reasons, too.) Who knows if Tristram Shandy will play there at all.
I was lucky enough to catch Tristram Shandy during Austin Film Festival, although it was oddly paired with Prime at The Paramount that night. I only saw Prime because I didn’t want to drive and park downtown later that night for Tristram Shandy; I knew I’d get better parking if I showed up earlier. Prime was so forgettable … did I ever review it? No, I wrote a one-paragraph summary on my 2005 in review entry, which is about all I have to say about Prime. I’d like to see a good movie with Uma Thurman in it sometime soon.
Meanwhile, all this talk about the movie and the book has me tempted to dig around in my boxes of books in the garage and find my copy of Tristram Shandy, to give it another try. Now that I have a better idea of the structure, or lack thereof, perhaps I’ll enjoy the book more and actually finish it this time. Or maybe not. Can you tolerate writing that is nothing but one digression and interruption after another, or did you stop reading this review long ago?

3 thoughts on “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)”

  1. I read TS in a class on 18th century English Novel my first semester back at school at age 47. I was totally clueless about the term “nose.” That semester some “modern” statues appeared on the UNO campust, including one by the LA building that I dubbed “male cat.” TS made me see phalluses in everything!

  2. My wife and I worked at Canal Place Cinema in the mid-90s and even back then they most likely would not have booked something as odd as “Tristram Shandy.”
    And, you’re right, Austinites should feel thankful for the movie-viewing options they do have. We moved here after losing everything to Katrina in NOLA and have been quite satisfied with the two Alamo Drafthouses within walking distance of our apartment. :-)

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