The incessant digressions, derailments and narrative loop-the-loops of Laurence Sterne's 18th century novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" would seem to make a proper film adaptation impossible ... so Michael Winterbottom didn't even try, settling instead upon an approach that explodes the novel apart after about 20 minutes to find a cinematic analogue to Sterne's accomplishment.
Steve Coogan rules as the hapless, distracted Tristram, with able support from a who's who of British talent, including Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby, Dylan Moran as Dr. Slop, Stephen Fry as Parson Yorick, and, um, Jeremy Northam as Michael Winterbottom. Someone tell Charlie Kaufman to get knotted.
Other than an irritating menu style that apes Terry Gilliam's signature cut-and-paste animations for Monty Python, HBO's enhanced-widescreen DVD is an entirely satisfying package, with some 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, and a thoughtful (but very clever) audio commentary from co-stars Coogan and Brydon.
The sense of play is present in the behind-the-scenes footage, which eschews a conventional making-of for a brief montage of B-roll from the battle re-enactment scene, and a 15-minute tour of Shandy Hall, home of author Laurence Sterne -- conducted by Stephen Fry and the Sterne biographer Fry plays in the film.
And if you think that's meta, fans of Coogan's Alan Partridge character -- supposedly based on the real-life English TV personality Tony Wilson, whom Coogan played in Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People" -- will delight in the inclusion of an expanded version of the Coogan-Wilson meeting staged in "Tristram Shandy."
Just watch it. It all makes sense in the end.
STUDIO: HBO Video
RELEASE DATE: July 11, 2006
TIME: 94 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: English and Spanish subtitles; audio commentary; deleted scenes; production featurette.
INTERNET SITE: www.tristramshandymovie.com