This film titled Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story has virtually nothing to do with the serial novel written by Laurence Sterne from 1759-1767 under the title The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I say this with some small degree of confidence, inasmuch as I actually read large portions of the strange, discursive tale in college nearly 20 years ago, whenever it didn’t seem more important to play pool or make beer runs. Money well spent, Mom and Dad.
This lack of fidelity isn’t exactly a problem, since director Michael Winterbottom isn’t exactly attempting to adapt the notoriously “unfilmable” story. He’s going for a meta-adaptation of what is already a meta-novel'not merely committing portions of the Shandy story to film, but rummaging around in mock-doc fashion behind the scenes of the making of a Shandy film. Steve Coogan'who worked with Winterbottom on his breakout film role in 24 Hour Party People'plays himself playing narrator Tristram and Tristram’s father; comic Rob Brydon plays himself playing Tristram’s wounded war veteran Uncle Toby. Winterbottom has seemed to make it a personal dare to himself never to make anything remotely resembling the same movie twice'this is the guy whose c.v. includes the art-porn fiasco 9 Songs, 24 Hour Party People and literary adaptations like Jude. Naturally someone who can’t abide being narrowly defined as a filmmaker would attempt something so clearly undefinable.
Except that it isn’t really indefinable. At its core it’s a poke at lower-budget movie-making, which tends to be a popular subject with lower-budget moviemakers. Everyone in the industry has a horror story about the scene they couldn’t shoot because they lacked the funds, or about the actor whose tantrums drove them nuts, or about script duels between the money people and the “artists.” When a director like Winterbottom and his frequent collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce make something like this, it’s often a purgative act. Watching someone else exorcise his artistic demons isn’t always particularly entertaining.
It is, however, extremely entertaining watching Steve Coogan. It’s becoming ever clearer that Coogan is never more appealing than when he’s playing an insecure, egomaniacal version of himself, just as he did in his brilliant segment of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes opposite Alfred Molina. This Coogan-in-quotes moans to the director over shoes that make him appear shorter than Brydon; he cringes every time someone makes a reference to his dim chat-show host character Alan Partridge. And in one of the best running gags, he keeps trying to hide the fact that he has no real knowledge of Sterne’s book whatsoever. Coogan’s a droll comedic force of nature, and any film is going to be worth a look that allows him and Brydon to whip out their dueling Al Pacino impersonations over the closing credits.
So should it matter that Winterbottom doesn’t entirely succeed at what he sets out to do? One of the ideas guiding Sterne’s rambling story was that human lives are too messy to fit neatly into a beginning-middle-end narrative. But Cock and Bull works hard to give Coogan’s self-absorbed actor a character arc. His significant other (Kelly Macdonald) visits the set, bringing along their new baby. Will “Coogan” learn to give up his philandering ways and become a responsible partner and papa before all is said and done? Winterbottom and Boyce may be going for some heightened level of irony here'“Look how ridiculous it is when you try to give form to the formlessâ€'but the subplot is played too straight. If it’s a gag at the expense of make-the-star-look-good redemption arcs, it’s so dry that it needs an IV drip.
Then again, it’s probably ridiculous to expect anything connected with Tristram Shandy'even if in name only'to be without its odd bumps and detours. The film still proves to be a silly delight when it’s hitting its insider targets'over-zealous historical enthusiasts who volunteer to be extras in a war scene but fuss over period accuracy; a last-minute call to bring X-Files’ Gillian Anderson into the cast for a little American star power; a malfunctioning harness as Coogan tries out a gigantic prop uterus. This is a fun little piece of work, particularly for those who find Coogan hilarious doing just about anything.
But the actual footage from the hypothetical Shandy film-within-the-film is pretty amusing, too. Maybe it’s all just the big goof that the subtitle suggests, but there are hints here that a real, truly wild Tristram Shandy is somewhere waiting to be made. If anyone will be willing to give it a shot, it’s Michael Winterbottom.