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The Unquiet American | The Nation

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The Unquiet American

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But matters of geopolitics aside, the question remains: What can you see for fun on Friday night? The best answer I can give is the preposterously funny, perpetually inventive, implausibly successful Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Because this film adapts a masterwork of eighteenth-century English literature, you will be glad to know that the tone is appropriately high. Tristram Shandy begins (more or less) with an off-color pun, punctuated by an offscreen animal noise. From this, students of Laurence Sterne's novel (or whatever) will immediately recognize the faithfulness of Martin Hardy's screenplay and Michael Winterbottom's direction. Sterne wrote pee-pee jokes, and you will get pee-pee jokes, whether from the text (as in the scene of Tristram's circumcision by a window sash) or from the filmmakers' imagination (as in the scene of Steve Coogan dropping a hot chestnut down his pants).

For those of you who can't remember at which Starbucks you left your lecture notes, I will explain that Sterne, the Albert Brooks of the eighteenth-century Yorkshire clergy, wrote Tristram Shandy as a book about writing a book. His narrator, Tristram, was attempting to compose his memoirs but found the process so befuddling that after hundreds of pages he couldn't get himself born. The analogy, of course, is a movie about making a movie. Coogan therefore appears in the film as the onscreen narrator, Tristram; as Tristram's father, Walter (by virtue of family resemblance); and as "Steve Coogan," a self-serious comic actor who is worried that the movie of Tristram Shandy might turn out to be about someone other than himself. This someone other is "Rob Brydon," a less famous comic actor who has been hired to play Uncle Toby, and who teases "Steve Coogan" with the relentlessness of a ventriloquist's evil dummy.

Winterbottom and Hardy might have tried narrating Tristram Shandy simultaneously with the making of Tristram Shandy, in the Sterne fashion; but they chose instead to compose the film in two large movements. The first consists of scenes from the early parts of the book; the second (which begins abruptly, at the moment of Tristram's birth) consists of scenes of the film crew on location, as they flirt, bicker, give interviews, look at the rushes, negotiate for more money and worry over rewrites. Part one is a kind of temporal maze, in which characters rush about from one time frame to another. Part two is a spatial maze, in which characters spend a leisurely evening and night wandering about their hotel and its grounds.

This second part of the film calls to mind Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore, with vodka tonics substituted for Cuba libres. But it also substitutes tenderness, in Sterne's fashion, for Fassbinder's harsh laughter. "If the audience could just see Walter pick up his baby," Coogan says, arguing for a better role for himself, "they would forgive him everything." After which Winterbottom shows the unforgivable "Coogan" picking up his baby, changing his diaper and cooing him back to sleep.

Somehow, despite our thinking about it, babies get born, movies get made and people stumble temporarily into their better selves. If you've forgotten that this is cause for celebration, Tristram Shandy will remind you.

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