Winterbottom’s Witty Tristram: Brits Battle in Meta-Comedy

Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, from a screenplay by Martin Hardy, based on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, turns out to be a remarkably successful spoof of period-costume filmmaking by way of a wacky Pirandellian pirouette across Sterne’s digressive 18th-century novel, which one character in the movie describes as “a masterpiece of postmodernism before there was any modernism to be post-.” The result is a movie about a movie very sparingly based on a book that has been reasonably considered unfilmable since the birth of the cinema.

I had been hearing good things about Mr. Winterbottom’s opus ever since last year’s New York Film Festival, but somehow I had failed to catch it before last week’s official New York opening. So off I trotted to a noon showing of the film at my local multiplex. The reviews had mostly been good, and a predominantly “mature” audience was in attendance. The reactions ranged from shrieking laughter to barely audible chuckles to quiet amusement. (There were also a few walkouts.) I belonged to the quiet-amusement party myself, and consequently suspected that there was at least a trace of cultural exhibitionism in the pockets of wild laughter, as if to say, “We get it, why don’t you?”

To be sure, I found the film steadily witty and funny, but seldom drop-dead hilarious—at least until its end-credit sequence, a competition between the two tongue-in-cheek comic leads on which one can do a better Al Pacino imitation. Indeed, Steven Coogan in the multiple roles of Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy and Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon as Toby Shandy and Rob Brydon, function most effectively as a tongue-in-cheek comedy team squabbling over their own actorly ambitions.

Of course, the movie itself is not without a certain highbrow snob appeal, despite all its professed irreverence. I recall having read Tristram Shandy in high school but can’t say I ever “got” it, and I have never been tempted to return to it since. I have always been addicted to orderly narratives, both in books and on film, with the result that I refuse to be impressed (or intimidated) by avant-garde variations in the art of storytelling, even from as far back as the 18th century. Still, I find a curious continuity in the film arising from the jocular competitiveness of two actors jealous of their respective billing and casting potential. The inside-showbiz provenance of their exchanges have become familiar to us in such cable-TV sitcoms as The Larry Sanders Show, Entourage and Extras, not to mention the steady blizzard of independent films concerned with the traumas of making an independent film. Hence, it’s not easy to be original with this sort of material, which is just the feat accomplished here by Mr. Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Mr. Hardy, and their remarkably relaxed and versatile cast, in this (mostly verbally) titillating cock-and-bull story.

With a subject seemingly so amenable to heartless derision, the film is remarkable for its warmth and generosity and conviviality. The pace of this low-budget-production-within-a-low-budget-production is of necessity so frenzied that no merely unpleasant characters have time to develop into full-fledged hateful villains; the stakes are too low for any serious malice to materialize. Jeremy Northam’s Mark patiently presides as the film’s director over cast and crew and assorted hangers-on without ever becoming an authoritarian caricature of a director. Mr. Coogan displays affection for two women named Jenny and Jennie. The first is played by Kelly MacDonald, who comes to the set with their baby in a cradle; the second is played by Naomie Harris, a respected friend and production assistant who provides Mr. Coogan with all sorts of insights into the two characters he’s playing. She is also familiar enough with the novel to provide the audience with a thumbnail summary of Sterne’s deep pessimism about people’s lives and dreams and the wishful stories they inspire.

But when push comes to shove, Mr. Coogan rejects the smart Jennie’s advances to stand by the Jenny who has their child. This mini-drama takes place amid the tumult of a set reverberating from the incessant screams of Elizabeth Shandy (Keeley Hawes), Tristram’s prospective mother, seemingly in the throes of perpetual childbirth. All of this simulated pain and suffering isn’t exactly funny or even chucklesome, but neither is it as harrowing as it might have been were it not so ridiculously overextended. Dylan Moran, as Dr. Slop, the family physician, gets one of the biggest laughs when he squashes a melon while demonstrating how safely he can extract a baby headfirst from its mother’s womb using forceps. As it finally happens, Dr. Slop’s trusty forceps merely chop off part of Tristram’s nose.

But it is in the flawless repartee that Tristram Shandy truly excels, with a wit that goes back to the Restoration dramatists as well as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward. It is ever so brightly British at a time when most Hollywood movies strain to be witless for the sake of the teenagers in that slavishly sought-after demographic sample. This brightness is particularly evident in a split-screen cameo in which a British producer negotiates with Gillian Anderson and her American agent to appear in a low-budget movie for a token fee. All the familiar buzz lines of art over commerce are trotted out on both sides of the Atlantic, with no one ever haggling or even cracking a smile. Yet, for all its irony, the scene remains sunny and liberating. And Ms. Anderson plays her scene as the Widow Wadman being courted by Mr. Brydon’s randy Uncle Toby in the full flush and blush of the film’s cock-and-bull impertinence. This movie is not suitable for children or illiterate adults.

Butler Did It?

Sir Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948), from a screenplay by Graham Greene, based on Mr. Greene’s short story The Basement Room, is being revived at Film Forum, and is revealed once more, after more than half a century, as one of the most brilliant demonstrations of P.O.V., or point of view, filmmaking. In this instance, Georges Perinal’s rigorously subjective camera tells a suspensefully melodramatic tale as seen through the eyes of a small child, Bobby Henrey, the son of the French Ambassador to England, who, while his parents are away on a trip, is left in the care of Baines, the butler (Ralph Richardson), and his shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel). The boy adores Baines and is terrified of Mrs. Baines. One day, he discovers a set of facts that he doesn’t fully understand. For one thing, Baines seems to be very interested in an attractive young French secretary (Michèle Morgan). When he asks Baines about her, Baines tells him falsely that she is his niece. From that point on, the boy becomes enmeshed in a web spun by the lies, deceptions and subterfuges of grown-ups.

When Mrs. Baines is found dead at the foot of one of the embassy’s winding staircases, Baines is suspected of having murdered her. The boy had fled into the night after witnessing Baines violently arguing with his wife after she’d caught him cheating with the secretary. Baines later claimed that she must have slipped on the staircase and fallen to her death accidentally. The boy tries to protect Baines, but he only succeeds in making him look more guilty with his childishly inexpert lies. Things look very bleak for Baines until—but even after half a century, I am not allowed by guild rules to give away the plot, the ending of which is considerably changed from the one in the short story by the screenwriter (and short-story writer) himself.

Still, the film works beautifully and reminds us of the glories of the black-and-white cinema at its peak, shortly before the beginning of its gradual demise. When it came out, I was working at a menial job for the Selznick Releasing Organization, which David O. Selznick was using mainly as the American distributor of Sir Alexander Korda’s British films. Strange to say, The Fallen Idol didn’t do well in America, and it contributed to the eventual economic downfall of both Selznick and Korda.

I recall Selznick on the telephone arguing endlessly and fruitlessly with a Texas owner of a large movie chain, who refused to open the picture in Texas because of the little boy’s fondness for a pet snake. I later learned that in Texas, mothers frightened their children to sleep with stories about snakes. The point is that this little detail about the boy wasn’t in Greene’s original short story, but had been added by Greene himself to the screenplay to make the boy more interestingly complex and, indirectly, to make Mrs. Baines more unsympathetic.

Canadians!

Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies, from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Rupert Holmes, has come and gone in 2005 without making much of a stir, although it wasn’t lacking in sensational elements that have become very much a part of our celebrity culture. I haven’t read the novel by Mr. Holmes, but I gather that it reminded many people of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy team that both thrived and disintegrated in the 50’s.

Mr. Egoyan decided to change the team into a trans-Atlantic comedy team with a brash Yank, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), and a more repressed Brit, Vince Collins (Colin Firth), whose task it is to keep the irrepressible Lanny under control. The story is told in bits and pieces from the vantage point of a 70’s journalist, Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman), trying to piece together the mysterious death of a groupie named Maureen (Rachel Blanchard), whose nude body is found in the bathtub of the comedy team’s hotel suite. Their reputations are besmirched, but since both have ironclad alibis, neither is charged with the crime. Their partnership, on the other hand, is bitterly dissolved, and they never appear together onstage or in a film again.

Mr. Egoyan, a Canadian-Armenian filmmaker, hit his peak, in my opinion, in 1994 with the hauntingly sensual Exotica, in which Mia Kirshner performed a provocative mock-schoolgirl striptease to exorcize the ghosts of her own abused childhood. Ever since then, Mr. Egoyan’s films have continued to reflect his obsessions with the behavioral twists and turns in the relations between men and women. The problem with Where the Truth Lies is that the female characters of Karen and Maureen are too susceptible to the erotic magnetism generated by the star power of Lanny and Vince. The solution to the “mystery” thereby becomes anticlimactic. Nobody would mistake Vince and Lanny for Martin and Lewis, particularly when the currently fashionable bisexual bombshell hits the fan, but Mr. Egoyan makes sure that we don’t entirely forget the Martin and Lewis parallels with his film by staging much of the action at a charity telethon in which both Vince and Lanny participate.

For all its failings, however, Where the Truth Lies reminds us that the most challenging filmmakers from Canada, like Mr. Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Denys Arcand, are at once so near and yet so far from the ingrained inhibitions of the still mass-oriented Hollywood studios. Also, Mr. Bacon and Mr. Firth put together fragments of their lighter and more angst-ridden moments into compelling characterizations that somehow transcend the infelicities of the project as a whole.