23 August 2007

A Cock and Bull Story


Dir: Michael Winterbottom, 2006

Steve Coogan, eh? While any artist or craftsman hates being associated with one piece of work for his whole career, it seems he will never escape the long shadow cast by his Alan Partridge character, possibly the finest British comedy creation of the nineties. Let’s face it, he’s infinitely preferable to the bloke who says ‘nice’ on The Fast Show, the bloke who says ‘great’ on The Fast Show (OK, anything on The Fast Show)… what else was there in the nineties? Brasseye was great, but was lacking what one could honestly deem a singular ‘comedy creation’. Maybe I’ll think of something by the time I finish writing this.

Anyway Partridge was awesome, but that programme’s general greatness makes everything else he’s done since look a tad mediocre. To be honest, I can’t really cast judgement on Around the World in Eighty Days or The Parole Officer, as I could never bring myself to watch them. Saxondale was pretty poor even on its own terms: the first episode had a nice climax, but it just meandered in a joke-evading complacency for the most part. I didn’t even watch the whole series which, when you consider our series tend to be six episodes long, is pretty damning an indictment. Still, it was miles better than Lead Balloon, but you’d kind of expect that, Coogan being generally infinitely better than Jack Dee.

Coogan’s Run, and it’s various spin-offs, were good, but they predated Partridge anyway, I think. They certainly came along before the classic I’m Alan Partridge (better than The Office, in case you were wondering. Which you weren’t) redefined who Coogan was in the eyes of the public. His scene with Alfred Molina in Coffee and Cigarettes was a highlight of that film, along with Tom Waits arguing with Iggy Pop, and ‘Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’-ass Murray’, but was a bit weird when I finally saw it. See, it eventually crawled onto the Victorian screen of the Hyde Park Picture House just after I had seen Spiderman II. Therefore, the sight of Coogan acting superior to the antagonist of that year’s biggest blockbuster was rather harder to believe than if I had seen the scene when it was originally released.

I suppose all that brings us to this one, made in 2005 but released in early 2006. I remember really wanting to see it at the time; maybe the rather under-loved second series of I’m Alan Partridge had just been on or something. Not wanting to read anything about films I intend to see, I’m not sure what the precise media tone was on it, but I recall a general underwhelmed feeling emanating from various magazine and newspaper pages.

And I can see why, really. The film abandons traditional narrative (or at least what an unsuspecting viewer would have been expected) rather quickly, as the tale of Tristram Shandy* is dropped in favour of meta-narrative on the making of the film about Tristram Shandy. When the film began, with its opening scene of Coogan and ‘supporting actor’ Rob Brydon in make-up, I simply assumed that was a neat little prologue. Instead, it was the introduction to the film proper, of which the actual tale of Shandy was mere digression.

I like the idea of this a lot, especially as Coogan and Brydon have pretty great chemistry (the really rather good Cruise of the Gods seems woefully unnoticed in the annals of telly comedy); Coogan is excellent as the Alpha Comedian constantly belittling his sidekick, Chuckle Brothers style. Actually, it wasn’t all one way: while ‘Coogan’ (the character, see) went to great pains to convince ‘Brydon’ that he was a supporting actor rather than a co-star, the latter irks the former by suggesting their names go alphabetically on the marquee, and regularly does impersonations that are allegedly of Coogan, but are really exaggerated Alan Partridge impressions. See, it’s that thing about not being able to escape the shadow of Partridge again, only all self-aware. Like the Simpsons episode with Rupert Murdoch in, it’s a slightly contrived effort at showing we great unwashed that he can laugh at himself. A-HAAA!

I just don’t know with this film. One the one hand I was pleased it stopped being the quasi-bio of Tristram Shandy, on account of it wasn’t very funny, I can’t stand Dylan Moran, and the narration kept stuttering when he was about to be born (which I gather was the gimmick of the book; he wasn’t born by the time it ended. I think). Still, Keeley Hawes was rather fetching. Anyway, the narrative soon shifted from the book to the peripheries of making the film of the book, in which lots of luvvies were knocking about in an old castle mithering about various details of the production. The only problem here was that this wasn’t particularly amusing either.

It seemed to be a vague stab at making a feature length British equivalent of The Larry Sanders Show which, in a way, the Alan Partridge stuff was anyway. And it just wasn’t venomous enough to really compare to Sanders. Apart from the aforementioned relationship between Coogan and Brydon, and Coogan’s Partridge albatross, I suppose the other source of entertainment was found in the recurring motif of people having what they thought were really good ideas, only to find them completely excised from the final cut. Among these were battles that were largely derided by all involved anyway and a role played by Gillian Anderson, for which they actually used Ms. Anderson (complete with someone wondering aloud whether she’d been in Baywatch), in which she appeared, talked a bit, then complained about not ending up in the film.

I was checking on the time about half an hour into this one, which wasn’t a good sign, and I am torn between the two reactions of respecting A Cock and Bull Story for its structure and resenting it for the structures lack of success. I, to this day, am unaware of what it was trying to achieve; I do know, though, that it wasn’t funny enough to pull off such a random exercise.

One scene that I did find rather touching was the one in which Coogan was interviewed by the late Tony Wilson (of course, Coogan played Wilson in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People); I assume they showed the film because of Wilson’s recent passing but, if that was indeed the case, I don’t know why they didn’t just air the latter instead. Whatever, it was poignant and reminded me of the time I ate a few tables away from Wilson in Manchester in late 2000. and that’s about it, I suppose. The bit-parts weren’t very engaging (including some dolt from The Fast Show), it meandered without ending up anywhere, and I can’t even remember how it finished. ‘Great’.


* I admit to ignorance on this one, not having read the book prior to watching the film. And, as I watched the film the other night, I still haven’t read it. Or pretty much any book.


POSTSCRIPT: I knew I forgot something. I did find the scene where Coogan was lowered into a giant fake womb to be rather amusing, as was what I think was a dream sequence in which he appeared again in the womb, this time a normal-sized one, and started ranting at the rest of the cast. The highlight of this was the most Partridge line of the film; on the surrealism of his situation he squeaked 'I don't know why I'm so small!'

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