A Cock And Bull Story
2005Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes
story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order."
With a resounding hint of formalist trite, echoes of Godard's categorical template evoke post-modernist ambitions more sonorously than they mirror structuralist inclinations. A less known Italian director, Mario Moncelli, was more blunt: "You should start watching a movie from the middle. Only then will you appreciate how it's actually been made." Michael Winterbottom's A Cock And Bull Story is no less less hard-nosed in defying structuralist expectations in such a splendid fashion. This is a comedy of the highest order.
It also proves (again) that not all literary adaptations are alike. A Cock And Bull Story starts with the end, ends with the beginning, and the middle....well, there almost isn't one. Insolent and noble in all its self-referential glory, the movie careens into logical disorientation rather than linear yarn: It is a joy to watch, yet quaintly so. And it shows, if nothing else, that 9 Songs was just a phase.
Laurence Sterne's 18th century mock-autobiography The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, deemed little more than a senseless mess in its day, was essentially considered unfilmable . Amidst all the cross-referencing, nonsequentiality, and uncharted lyrical excursions, Tristram doesn't get further than his own birth by the end of the book. So it's fitting, perhaps, that Winterbottom's "adaptation"—if you can call it that—is both an exultant mess and a glorious triumph. The cognizance it bears of its literary template is so sloppy it ocassionally seems to elude even its director.Winterbottom's triumph lies, instead, in the way his film heroically eschews its apparents origins. So how, in the first place, does one tackle the adaptation of a story that is impossible to tell? By making a film about the making of a film.
Costume fiascos, homoeroticism, love triangles, self-parodying, namedropping, freaks, fanatics and celebrity cameos: Winterbottom has his cards all in the right places. The film trawls territory similar to Adaptation, while substituting Kaufman's self-involvement for parodical farce. Here, the book is taken on a completely different tangent, disregarding much of the prismatic wordplay Sterne aptly used to delineate his characters. And it mostly works. For the uninitiated, the book begins with Tristram narrating the immediate events surrounding his own birth, but gets so caught up in his own family's grotesque historicality, he soon loses his initial thread, only to arrive back at it some 700 pages later. A Cock And Bull Story begins with a similarly sincere intention, but you realise this won't be your usual Jane Austen adaptation the moment Tristram (Steve Coogan) appropriates his father Walter's hat and dons his role because of "family resemblance."
But wagering his template in favor of farcical burlesque gets Winterbottom only so far. This is a story about a fictional literary character, and yet the real stars are those adapting it. Despite cameos by such comedy veterans as Stephen Fry, David Walliams and, ahem, Gillian Anderson (playing herself), this is a Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon tour de force. The Coogan and Brydon Show, luckily, is a glorious success. Never less than detached, Coogan brings the necessary ennui to a character you really aren't supposed to figure out. Whether playing Tristram, himself, or Tristram's father, Walter (yes, he does all three), Coogan seems almost as baffled by the events unfolding around him as we are—and that's half the fun. The other half is courteously supplied by Rob Brydon, eternally squabbling with Coogan over "screen-time" and the "leading man" title ("if we follow alphabetical order, which I think is the fair thing to do, my name should come before yours"). Their self-mocking, backstabbing, and good-natured caterwauling, often bordering on improvisation, are the heart of this movie. Little Britain and The Office may have positively blown the notion of the Very British Comedy to stratospheric proportions, but Coogan and his British comedy compatriots remind us that I'm Alan Partridge and Only Fools And Horses preceded those hits.
A background in made-for-TV productions has clearly sharpened Winterbottom's directorial edges and allowed for the narrative humdrum in which Tristram Shandy flourishes, but this tell-it-as-it-is approach could do with a bit of softening. The resulting narrow focus squanders the chance to frame Tristram Shandy within his own context. Yet the strength of the comedy here is so punchy that this observation is swiftly lost to genuine laughter. Indeed, I don't remember having laughed this much in the theatre in a long time. Not all characters have to make sense, not all events have to feel unstaged. Surely, this is part of the appeal.
After 9 Songs and 24 Hour Party People, it seemed there was not much Witnerbottom could do to escape the claws of his own career. But with A Cock And Bull Story, not only has he escaped—he has made an entirely new name for himself. Mark my words.