Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In the middle of the 18th century, over a span of some ten years, Laurence Sterne wrote a massive, discursive book in the form of a mock autobiography called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It was sort of the This is Spinal Tap of its own day, an autobiography designed to demonstrate the inherent hubris and self-absorption involved in trying to write an autobiography. Tristram tries to narrate everything important to his life, starting with events that happened before and during his conception. There are so many time-shifts and prolix digressions that poor Tristram barely makes it to his own birth!

Sterne himself was a learned man, knowledgeable about everything from classical antiquity to then-modern science, and he was proud to strut his erudition about any and every subject whenever the mood suited him. The opaque and rambling Tristram Shandy might have earned him a permanent place as the world's most famous bore, except for one thing: he had a sense of humor, and a bawdy one at that. Because Sterne took lots of pot-shots at the sacred cows of his own era, and because he loved a ribald laugh, his work was read by a far larger audience than those who might have been interested in his thoughts about Cervantes or Rabelais or modern medicine. That audience does not include me. I was a lit major as an undergrad, but this one joins Finnegans Wake on the list of masterpieces that I've never read all the way through, so I can't offer much more insight. It's in the public domain, so you can read it for free, if you care to. If you read a few paragraphs, you'll get enough of the general flavor to see that its verbosity and introspection are very clever and literary, and you might enjoy it if you had the time and patience for such things, but it's not exactly juicy screenplay material.

As Slate Magazine wrote:

"Tristram Shandy is of those rare works of literature that seem to have been written in the wrong century. Even as the modern form of the novel was being born, Sterne was already messing with it: stepping outside the narrative to address the reader, apologizing for "losing" chapters that later showed up in their entirety, even including an all-black page to mourn the passing of one character and a blank page for the reader to fill in his own description of another. Filming a book that's so insistent on its own book-ness would seem the very definition of folly on a director's part."

So, is there a way to make a film of an unfilmable book?

Apparently so. Think about how successfully Charlie Kaufman did it in Adaptation. Same general idea worked here as well.

Director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce thought that the best way to show the genius of the novel was to show precisely why it is unfilmable, so this movie is not actually a film adaptation of Tristram Shandy, but a mockumentary about a group of people trying to make a film adaptation of Tristram Shandy. "Oh, God," you must be thinking, "not another damned self-referential film about the filmmaking process. Hasn't that been done to death? And isn't it a subject that nobody gives two shits about anyway, unless they actually make movies?"  I thought about that, but I think it worked here, just as it worked in Adaptation, because it was not done to philosophize about illusion and reality in the moviemaking process, or any similar sophomoric and hackneyed cracker-barrel ruminating, but to address the inherent difficulty in translating the book into cinema. By taking this approach the screenwriter was able to use the filmmaking characters to discuss and debate which elements of the novel have been discarded or retained, and why. Of course, the beauty of it is that some of the book does translate well to film (Shandy's comical birth, for example), so the writer of this film was able to use those scenes from the film-within-a-film.

The chit-chat about the novel and the film business was interesting enough, but the parts I liked best were the exchanges between actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon when they were playing themselves. I don't know if these scenes were tightly scripted, improvised, or a combination of the two, but the two men proved very able at spoofing themselves and especially at roasting one another. One must give an especially sharp-angled tilt of the hat to Coogan for taking every nasty salvo fired by Brydon, returning fire, and even spoofing his own tabloid-friendly hijinks with Courtney Love by having the fictional Steve Coogan caught in an uncomfortably similar scenario. Nobody can say that Steve Coogan isn't willing to do anything for a laugh. Particularly after they've seen him naked and upside-down in the womb of Tristram's mother. If you're thinking of hiring this guy, rest assured that he'll give you everything he's got.

If you are wondering whether this film is for you, a very telling fact is that there was an extremely wide gap between the near-unanimous critical approbation and the less enthusiastic perceptions of average moviegoers. Rotten Tomatoes says Tristram is off the top of the critical scale, with 90% of critics recommending it, but Yahoo voters only vote it a C+, even though Yahoo has a softball system in which C+ is quite a low score. (Deuce Bigelow is rated a B-!) You may conclude that it can be considered a highbrow movie. You may also conclude that many of the inside jokes will be lost on you if you are American (lots of British media references), or not very fond of the deadpan English style of dry wit, or just not interested in vintage English literature.

I have only one real reservation about offering a totally unreserved recommendation for you culture-vultures who do enjoy highbrow literary adaptations and English comedy. The film seems repetitive. As I watched it, there were moments when I thought this film was a complete delight, but then there were other times when I found my mind wandering because the script seemed to return to the same ideas again and again. When the cycle returned to Coogan and Brydon insulting each other, it was fun, but there were other times when it just seemed to be moving in a maddening circle.

But when it's good - it's genius!



  • Commentary by performers Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon

  • Extended interview with Steve Coogan

  • Deleted scenes

  • Scene extensions

  • Behind-the-scenes footage



Keeley Hawes shows her bum while getting into bed.

DVD Graphic Novel

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: no consensus. Ebert gave a thumb way up, Berardinelli was lukewarm. The average was 3.25 stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 4/4

  • British consensus: about three stars out of four. Mail 6/10, Telegraph 8/10, Independent 6/10, Guardian 6/10, Times 8/10, Express 8/10, Mirror 8/10, FT 2/10, BBC 5/5.


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Despite the adulation of critics, it grossed only $1.2 million in the USA, $3.1 worldwide. It never reached more than 51 theaters in the USA.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+. Helluva good movie for a very discriminating audience. Many of the inside jokes will be lost on you if you are American (lots of British media references), or not very fond of the dry English wit, or not interested in vintage English literature.

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