18th-Century Party People

'Tristram Shandy' celebrates Post-Mod before the Mod

After the docu-fiction hybrid In This World and the hardcore romance 9 Songs, the ever-restless and enterprising Michael Winterbottom turns to the supposedly unadaptable The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a "postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about," as his lead actor Steve Coogan puts it. The result is one of Winterbottom's best films to date, and certainly his funniest.

Springy with the same self-reflexive gymnastics of Winterbottom and Coogan's previous collaboration, 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (which starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema) turns Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel about writing a novel into, naturally, a movie about making a movie. The principals portray both the book's characters and themselves; Coogan does triple duty as himself, Tristram's father, and Tristram, who himself flits in and out of the book's events. ("That is a child actor pretending to be me," he explains at one point.)

The spry script plays it remarkably close to the bone. The movie-Coogan, much like his offscreen version, faces a few public-relations problems regarding his sexual activities, and otherwise juggles costume dilemmas, script meetings, time with his neglected girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their newborn son, a half-hearted dalliance with a cinephilic production assistant (Naomie Harris), and a hot chestnut down his pants. The movie also mines droll comedy from the scramble and strain of low-budget indie filmmaking--something Winterbottom surely knows a lot about--as cast and crew despair over rushes of an underpopulated battle scene or the producers place a desperate call to Gillian Anderson to save the day.

Best of all is Coogan's marvelous rapport with Brit-comedy fixture Rob Brydon (as himself and Toby Shandy). Whether the actors are trading Al Pacino impressions or debating the color of Brydon's teeth ("Tuscan sunset" or "pub ceiling"?), they exemplify the movie's infectious improvisational energies.

 
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