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Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (1/10)

by Tony Medley

About ¾ of the way through this, Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan, who also plays himself) awakens while in bed with his wife, Elizabeth (Keeley Hawes, who also plays herself). She asks him what’s wrong and he says, “I was having a nightmare.” He must have been dreaming he was being forced to watch this movie.

Director Michael Winterbottom is at it again. His last film, “9 Songs” was a boring, hard core porn outing. Because “Tristram Shandy” has no hard core sex, it can’t be considered pornographic. But it does fit the obscenity bill because it is so boring and uninvolving it is offensive in behavior and expression.

Apparently intended as a comedy, there’s really not much funny in it. The book upon which the film is based, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” was written by Laurence Sterne, an 18th Century Yorkshire pastor. It consisted of nine volumes and was written between 1759 and 1767. The producer, Andrew Eaton, should have had a clue that it was not cinematic when his first screenwriter, Cottrell Boyce, could only produce a 30 page screenplay when he was trying to adapt it for a sitcom. “That was all the plot there was in 500 pages,” says Eaton. “We couldn’t even stretch it to 90 minutes.”

So what Eaton did was hire Winterbottom and screenwriter Martin Hardy to write a film about a film company making a film about Tristram Shandy. What they came up with, as near as I can figure, is that the film within a film is almost totally about Tristram’s birth. You got that right, an entire film about someone’s birth. The birth was a little unusual because his nose was broken by the improper use of forceps.

So this is a film about a film company making a film about the birth of someone who had his nose broken. If that sounds idiotic, it’s not nearly as stupid as it is when you sit through it for 91 long minutes. If it’s meant as farce, it misses the mark by a long shot. What it is, is a film about nothing with nothing to say about nothing.

Winterbottom seems trapped in a high school mentality that finds humor and entertainment in male scatology. Maybe when he grows up…This film flunks the watch test in spades. I was looking at mine more than I was looking at the screen.

It is being advertised as the film of the book everyone said could not be filmed. Winterbottom’s result reminds me of the old ditty:

They all said it couldn’t be done;

They all said he couldn’t do it;

So he tackled the job that couldn’t be done;

And, by George, he couldn’t do it.


January 19, 2006