Why on earth would anyone attempt to adapt an unfilmable book, with so many filmable ones around? Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story replies, "Why, indeed?"
Director Michael Winterbottom presents no conventional screen version of Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Instead, he offers literate comedy about a foolhardy attempt to make such a film, along with the chaotic, behind-the-scenes life of its star, Steve Coogan.
In an interview during the film, Coogan describes the book as "a post-modern novel before there was any modernism to be 'post' about." The line neatly sums up the literary verdict of the book while sounding exactly like the kind of canned quote celebrities whip out in press conferences. Tristram Shandy tweaks famous literature and the film industry with equal confidence.
Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, an English gentlemen who attempts to recount his life story but, as in the book, takes so many tangents and switchbacks that he barely gets past his own infancy. Coogan also portrays Tristram's father Walter, whose scientific obsessions set off humorous mishaps during his son's birth and conception.
Primarily Coogan plays Coogan, or at least a fictional version of himself. A highly gifted comic actor, Coogan can shift hilariously between imperious hauteur and befuddled insecurity, and has specialized in variations on essentially the same persona. He found a cult following as British sitcom character Alan Partridge, a fatuous talk-show host-turned-disc jockey. Partridge's character is partly derived from "real" broadcaster/record producer Tony Wilson, whom Coogan portrayed in Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. (Wilson even has a cameo in Tristram Shandy as Coogan's interviewer, just to keep you off balance.) Maneuvering through this hall of mirrors, it's easy to feel that this Tristram Shandy belongs far more to Steve Coogan than Laurence Sterne.
The film emulates the theme of Sterne's book, which a literary scholar (Stephen Fry) helpfully sums up: Life is far too chaotic and complex to be contained by a single book, and that goes double for a sprawling motion picture short on cash but long on egotistical and idiosyncratic artists. Since films are usually shot -- and reshot -- out of sequence, Tristram Shandy's on-the-set gimmick sends the narrative simultaneously forward and back.
Tristram Shandy strings together many pricelessly funny moments, such as the surreal sight of Coogan lowered upside-down into a giant uterus to describe his own birth. Coogan's one-upping banter with comic foil Rob Brydon (who plays both himself and Tristram's Uncle Toby) sounds unscripted and proves especially appealing. Sitting side-by-side in the makeup trailer, they discuss the color of Brydon's teeth -- "It's what they call 'Not White'" -- and debate whether a better description would be "Tuscan Sunset" or "Pub Ceiling."
Setting Sterne's bawdy comedy of 18th-century manners alongside Winterbottom's cunning, contemporary film satire, Tristram Shandy should be a dizzy, dazzling head-trip. Instead, the "cock and bull story" feels increasingly thin, like less than the sum of its parts. Tristram Shandy's shambling plot ultimately hinges on whether Coogan can mature as a man and an artist. Will he throw a movie-star snit about footwear? Can he resist the charms of a beautiful production assistant (Naomie Harris) to spend quality time with his infant son? And is that all there is?
Tristram Shandy falls short of the example set by Adaptation, an equally head-spinning movie about adapting an unfilmable book. Adaptation evolved into a meditation on compromise and the extent to which Hollywood hacks resent genuine, passionate artists. Tristram Shandy avoids making such a pointed statement and even seems suspicious of tackling a grander idea. Given that Winterbottom and Coogan have taken on a notoriously digressive, prankish and anticlimactic book, perhaps it's not fair to expect the film of Tristram Shandy to be entirely satisfying. We should enjoy the laughs and ask questions later.