Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story
B

Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

B

Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Runtime: 91 minutes
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Gillian Anderson

Michael Winterbottom's prankish literary adaptation Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story has about a dozen layers of in-joke, and up to the eighth or ninth layer, they mostly work. The movie is simultaneously a straight version of Laurence Sterne's notoriously bent 18th-century novel and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the production, with stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing characters in the Shandy story as well as "themselves." The film riffs on Coogan's real-life sex scandals and Hollywood misadventures, and it devolves into an extended debate about what parts of the book really need to be filmed—just as Tristram Shandy itself feigns at being the autobiography of a great man, then gets sidetracked by oddments of family history and an alarming number of dick jokes.

An unfocused novel suits the style and sensibility of the prolific Winterbottom, who often lets great ideas down with ineffective execution. Sterne's puckish text doubles back on itself, while supplying superfluous charts and useless quotations. Winterbottom's movie captures Sterne's spirit by sticking Coogan out front as Shandy, the narrator of his own ill-fated upper-crust life. Coogan rambles self-importantly, points out inconsistencies, and generally manages the novel's story as though it were a half-remembered anecdote. Off the set (but still on-camera), Coogan continues to hold court, bickering with Brydon over who should get star billing, while trying to keep his visiting wife and infant daughter from discovering his extracurricular sexual activities.

The Coogan-as-hapless-libertine material mostly falls flat, because it makes the comedian uncomfortably unappealing. The life-on-a-movie-set material doesn't add much either, because it doesn't reveal anything about show business that 8 1/2, Day For Night, Irma Vep, and countless other films didn't reveal first. Still, those familiar beats have developed their own appealing rhythm over the years, and while there's nothing new about the scenes of harried production assistants and indecisive directors, it's comforting to know that playing with expensive toys hasn't changed much over the years.

Ultimately, viewers' reactions to Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story may depend on how they react to its funniest scene, where the filmmakers call up Gillian Anderson and ask if she can fly over immediately to play a part they've spontaneously decided to add. She gushingly agrees, in an over-the-top split-screen sequence, and she's fending off X-Files questions and clumsy flirtations from Brydon the next day. It's a fine bit of wild invention, though some may wonder why a movie capable of moments like that parcels them out so inconsistently.