A Cock and Bull Story

Director: Michael Winterbottom
With: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

Runtime: 94 min

Before I saw A Cock and Bull Story, I had never heard of its ‘source’ novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne; a book famous within certain circles as being ‘unfilmable’. Certainly, the title character’s attempts to relate his autobiography while interrupted by so many random diversions that he never gets past his own birth, does seem unnaturally poor material for a movie.

Such an unusual subject was never going to produce the most conventional of films, and indeed prolific and divisive director Winterbottom has created an utterly polarising movie. It is a multi-levelled film- within-a-film, as the story switches between the actual adaptation of Tristam’s story and the behind-the-scenes bickering, bantering and petty feuding between ‘Steve Coogan’ and ‘Rob Brydon’, each playing brilliantly subtle caricatures of themselves; perfect for those who love the awkward comedy of Alan Partridge and David Brent.

Admittedly, it is a thoroughly puzzling film if you try to focus on the narrative, as the continual flitting between realities and its many layered (and slightly wearing) in-jokes create quite a bit of confusion. What A Cock and Bull Story is really about, once its ‘plot’ is dispensed with, is the relationship between its co-stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. The film is at its best when it is just these two, which isn’t often enough. On the whole the comedy is spread too thin for my personal taste, but the film is book-ended by brilliant, seemingly improvised, discussions between the two stars in which they discuss such subjects as the precise Dulux-coded shade of teeth, and Brydon’s description of himself as a cross between Al Pacino and Barbara Streisand. The stand-out moment, and one which is destined to become a cult favourite for reasons I won’t mention here, is the achingly funny ‘hot chestnut’ scene. Coogan particularly is exceptionally good throughout, especially as he is playing a vain and venal version of himself, dangerously close to his true persona in parts.

At one stage, Coogan mentions how the ‘film’ was originally considered as a sitcom, and to be honest, one cannot help but wish that this had actually been so, as there are times when it does just feel like an episode of ‘Extras’ stretched out to an hour and a half. However, this doesn’t stop it from being the best British comedy film of the year, and while that may not sound much of a compliment in late January, it may still be true in December.

Reviewed by Rob Perkins

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