Director: Michael Winterbottom
A postmodern novel before there was a modernism “to be post about” (as one character puts it), Laurence Sterne’s novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ has long been considered unfilmable. In a potentially genius move, ever-topical director Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, A Mighty Heart) and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce decide to focus on the behind-the-scenes mayhem of a film adaptation of ‘Shandy’. The two leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Tristram and his uncle Toby, but also play (a version of) themselves, a situation that affords director and screenwriter alike some interesting opportunities.
Like the novel that inspired it, A Cock and Bull Story pulls and warps the conventional structure of narratives, as well as poking fun at the behind-the-scenes documentaries that are the bedrock of so many DVD extras. The opening sees Brydon and Coogan arguing over who gets top billing as their makeup is applied. A lot of the film is taken up with this kind of discussion, but it frequently and unfortunately flits between funny and self-important. Coogan may be poking fun at his own persona with his egotistical performance, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t plain unlikeable. Attempts to make him more likable are lifted wholesale from the novel in an appropriately postmodernist fashion, but it’s too little too late, and somehow makes the film seem flimsy. The writing and direction in A Cock and Bull Story seems to be trying too hard to be clever; its attempts at humour are often undermined by its commitment to toy with narrative convention. Stearne’s novel did it best, and any attempts to recreate his efforts are doomed to failure.
That is not to say that there isn’t much to admire in A Cock and Bull Story. Brydon’s dry wit and spot-on impressions raise some chuckles, whilst a smorgasbord of British acting talent (Keeley Hawes, Naomie Harris and Stephen Fry amongst them) punctuate proceedings with wry knowing and witty asides. A Cock and Bull Story is a sly nod to the egos that rule the filmmaking roost, but the satire draws too close to reality to be truly effective. Whilst there are plenty of scenes that stand out (how many films boast putting a grown man into a giant facsimile of a womb?), A Cock and Bull Story is less than the sum of its parts. As one character notes, “It’s historical, but it’s not hysterical”.