"Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story" adapts the unadaptable 1753 novel by Laurence Sterne, but only just. It's a droll British comedy about the making of a movie based on "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," directed and co-written, seemingly on the fly or on the run from creditors, by the versatile English director Michael Winterbottom.
The film shouldn't work this well in America, where jokes about the public image and tabloid exploits of the movie's star, Steve Coogan, carry little comic weight. Yet such is the assurance of "Tristram Shandy" that it careens from jokes about the precise color shade of a vain co-star's discolored front tooth--"Tuscan sunset" and "pub ceiling" are two suggestions--to a rather sweet portrait of an addled, somewhat caddish actor's newfound domesticity. It's a little bit "Tom Jones," a little bit "Adaptation," a smidge of Monty Python and a dash of Fellini's "861/2," right down to Winterbottom's use of music by the brilliant Fellini composer, Nino Rota.
The novel reads like the world's strangest memoir, in which Shandy recounts his batterings at the hand "of what the world calls Fortune," on "this scurvy and disastrous" planet. It is an epic jape, and Winterbottom's résumé, however rangy, doesn't suggest an ideal director-to-subject match. Early Winterbottom films, such as "I Want You" (early Rachel Weisz) and "9 Songs," have a rather studied and dour air about them, even with all the sex.
But of the half-dozen I've seen, "Tristram Shandy" (less sex, more comedy--a reasonable trade) strikes me as Winterbottom's luckiest project yet. It feels made up on the spot, in the mockumentary style Winterbottom and Coogan deployed in their Manchester music-scene goof, "24 Hour Party People." But that film wasn't half as much fun as this one.
It begins with Coogan at the makeup mirror alongside his co-star Rob Brydon. Soon we're whisked into the story of "Tristram Shandy," but like the novel--which keeps breaking character and digressing and following a squirrel's darting instincts. Often we're watching Coogan or Brydon play themselves playing a Sterne character. In costume and wig Coogan watches a child actor play himself at a young age, at which he suffers a painful injury in the region of the groin. A few pathetic hollers of pain later, Coogan informs us that the actor on view was "the best of a bad bunch."
A fervent production assistant (Naomie Harris), who's into Fassbinder and appears to be the only one on the set who has read the Sterne novel, tempts the bad boy in Coogan. The star, meanwhile, is hosting a visit from his sweet-tempered girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their 6-month-old son. Coogan, Brydon and the best of their cohorts have the chops to pull off the period-picture scenes and the comic wiles to make themselves look ever so slightly ridiculous in everything else. Brydon's crush on Gillian "X-Files" Anderson, who has been cast opposite him in the film, reduces him to a coarse-acting blob of jelly. He's hilarious here. As a curtain call Brydon and Coogan trade very funny Al Pacino impersonations.
Winterbottom strains sometimes for the movie's hall-of-mirror effects. The film-within-a-film construct isn't daisy fresh. But the flourishes--the movie is all flourishes, really--are deft and sharp and light on their feet, and in such moments as Coogan singing his son to sleep with "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean," "Tristram Shandy" manages to burrow beneath the jokes for a moment before resuming the chase. Faithful in spirit, happily faithless as narrative, the movie gallops along. Sterne himself wrote: "As we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do anything--only keep your temper."
`Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story'
Directed by Michael Winterbottom; screenplay by Martin Hardy, based on the novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" by Laurence Sterne; cinematography by Marcel Zyskind; production design by John Paul Kelly; edited by Peter Christelis; produced by Andrew Eaton. A Picturehouse release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (for language and sexual content).
Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy, himself - Steve Coogan
Toby Shandy, himself - Rob Brydon
Jennie - Naomie Harris
Jenny - Kelly Macdonald