As much fun as it to take a cheap shot at Michael Winterbottom here and there, we at Reverse Shot like to believe we’re willing to stow our biases safely away when necessary and offer an olive branch of credit where credit is due. (Though, even if Todd Solondz turned out L’Argent, I’d still call it a piece of shit.) To that end, I’ll offer hearty kudos to MW, the hardest working doofus in show business, for his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a surprising, admirably goofy, low-key, lower-case d-econstruction of the literary adaptation that’s more than a little palate cleansing in this fallow season of post-holiday bloat. Personal fetish for movies about moviemaking aside, Tristram Shandy is light, largely lacking in pretension (all the more laudable for its knowing winks and tweaks of the form) and in spite of its many digressions and interludes, seems really intent on pushing something of the spirit of Laurence Sterne’s novel. It may not be 8 ½ or Beware of a Holy Whore (even if the film does bend over backwards to reference both), but beggars can’t be choosers.
Is it annoyingly hyperactive from time to time? Yes, of course—it’s Michael Winterbottom, that comes with the territory. Does perhaps too much rest on one’s appreciation (or lack) of Steve Coogan? For sure: Coogan is, after all, Tristram Shandy, the nominal star, as the narrative and its characters constantly remind us. It’s a flawed, overstuffed, jumpy film that will probably irritate as many as it pleases. But, I relish a little movie like Tristram Shandy, which features characters that are markedly human, full of faults and offhanded warmth, clashing impulses and conflicting burdens, especially as I sit with the first episode of The Apprentice, a “reality show” lacking any semblance of humanity, blaring over my shoulder. Trump & Co. may be “real people” but they might as well be automatons; their utter unmodulated venality is something I’m forced to acknowledge must exist—I’m watching it after all—but call me naïve if I find pleasant recognition in Winterbottom’s worldview even buried under layers of artifice as it is. (Did I actually just say that?) He may openly reference Fassbinder and Bresson, but what’s he’s pulled off here is a truly Rohmer-esque bait-and-switch. (Did I just say that too?) Tristram Shandy’s a movie about making a movie of a book on the surface only and features a payoff of surprising warmth from the man who last left us bluntly juxtaposing frigid sex with frigid scenery.
Perhaps best of all: given that Winterbottom’s about as likely to knock one out of the park as a second rate relief pitcher, I won’t feel the need to see another one of his movies for at least another five years.