No, Really—We’re All Going To Die, So Wise Up and Laugh About It Already
Comically witty British actor Steve Coogan does an amazing “Steve Coogan,” comically witty British actor. Sitting in a dressing-room makeup chair while having a large prosthetic nose applied, “Coogan”—the star of the film-within-a-film adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 1759 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—banters with his co-star Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon), who plays Tristram’s tragically, and indelicately, war-wounded Uncle Toby. “Brydon” wonders aloud about his teeth—he fears they’re what is known as “not white.” “Coogan”—aloof, condescending, and just this side of being an insufferable prick—counters Brydon’s “Tuscan sunset” with his own assessment: pub ceiling.
This opening scene astringently cleanses the palate for everything to follow in Michael Winterbottom’s impish, churlish, caustically inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a literary adaptation that uses its source more for entertainment’s sake than as a narrative blueprint. Winterbottom—whose rakish cinematic streak since 2000’s The Claim deserves medals—and scenarist Frank Cottrell Boyce ditch the Charlie Kaufman-esque meta-narrative games in favor of a story that fillets such pedestrian foibles as lust, pride, shame, and vanity. In short, Cock is all about the state of being, oh, what’s the word? Ah, yes: human.
And it does so in an adorably sheepish and conniving manner. Cock is a work of modest outrageousness, and its blush of decorum while depicting its ludicrous shenanigans—such as inserting a nude Coogan into a foam uterus model with a see-through front, a “womb with a view” as somebody suggests—quaintly confirms its entire enterprise. Winterbottom and company are serious about having a good time, and the script, performances, and even throwaway jokes hold nothing sacred about celebrity, filmmaking, life in general, and, most of all, themselves.
Sterne’s doorstop novel forks through more pointless tangents and diversions than a book-club discussion, barely getting around to dramatizing its titular character’s birth. Likewise, Cock stops and starts around the young Tristram's arrival, the film-inside-the-film narrated by his father, Walter (played by Coogan playing “Coogan,” natch). Walter the narrator runs through many of the novel’s signature imbroglios—Uncle Toby’s war wound, the circumstances of his son mistakenly being christened “Tristram,” Tristram’s alarming circumcision, the odd relationship between Walter’s winding of the clocks and his wife’s coital enthusiasm, and even the novel’s black page gets its cheeky screen time. As “Coogan” notes, the novel was “postmodern before there was any modern to be post about”—as fatuously glib a statement you’ll find in anything outside of election-year political press releases. Meanwhile, stressed director Mark (Jeremy Northam) and writer Joe (Ian Hart) not only have to contend with Coogan’s fragile ego but also a sluggish production, their producers’ financial concerns, war re-enactors’ insistence to historical accuracy, and Coogan’s girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly MacDonald), arriving on set with their son as Coogan not so surreptitiously pursues his PA, Jennie (Naomie Harris).
Sterne-ophiles and Coogan fans be warned—the possibility of chortling causing spontaneous bladder release is high. But if the idea of Sterne as the anti-Boswell means nothing to you, fear not. Cock doesn’t traffic in postmodernism’s boorish trivialities—that reality and/or truth are mutable and constantly changing or that the practice of artistically documenting a life gets in the way of living it. In fact, Cock cares not if you’ve even read the book—you need only get past the first page to know where it’s coming from. “I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life,” Sterne wrote in his dedication. Cock delivers those laughs almost constantly, even when it dabbles in the perfunctory.
The scene that appears in almost every movie about moviemaking crops up near the end here: the cast, crew, and producers huddle in a small screening room watching rushes, the room’s silence punctuated by a few choked laughs or insincere ahhs as the daily footage unspools. The lights come up, and the room empties save the star, director, writer, and some producers, who inquire what the point is to making a movie that is only funny. “Maybe if it’s genuinely funny,” Coogan offers, encapsulating the movie’s convivial jolt in sarcastic sincerity. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull isn’t going to illuminate some unexplored corner of existence, but it sure as hell makes you happy to be among the living who can laugh with it.