Conventional wisdom says that Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is unfilmable. And yet we have Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom's answer to what his leading character calls "a masterwork of postmodernism before there was any modernism to be post." In his ahead-of-its-time novel, Sterne put his chronology on shuffle-play and made his narrator rambling and absurdly self-referential. Working with screenwriter Martin Hardy (actually the pseudonym of estranged Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce), Winterbottom solves the problem of Tristram Shandy by making an allusion-packed "backstage" comedy of the filming of an adaptation of Tristram Shandy.
Steve Coogan plays "Steve Coogan," who plays Tristram Shandy and Shandy's father Walter in the film-within-the-film. "Coogan" is a vain, ego-driven nightmare of passive aggression caught in the hamster-wheel of the movie business. Like the real Coogan, the screen Coogan is a star in his native England, but still an abortive celebrity in America. Like Shandy, he's a man constantly anticipating his birth ("I'm getting ahead of myself," says Shandy. "I am not yet born").
"Coogan" approaches his role blithely, not having read the book but holding strong opinions about it. He entertains an affair with a production assistant named Jenny (Naomie Harris) even as his wife Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) visits the production with their son. (Naturally, we see "Coogan" holding his baby shortly after his remark "You'll forgive Walter everything if we see him holding the baby.") A further irony is that the production assistant knows more about film than anyone else on the picture, including Jeremy Northam's functionary director; she name-checks Bresson's Lancelot du Lac in anticipation of a troublesome battle scene, adding of the armor (and, by implication, "Coogan"): "It's about the impossibility of actually connecting with another human being."
"Coogan"'s life is disconnected. We see him meeting again people he doesn't remember and caroming from meeting to meeting with everyone who wants a piece of him. Coogan anchors a dead-on spoof of EPK interviews (that's "Electronic Press it") in a scene with Tony Wilson, the TV presenter Coogan spoofed on Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge and later played in Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. "Coogan" also has a troublesome relationship with his costar "Rob Brydon" (Rob Brydon). The two engage in a sort-of friendly cold war of egos, which thaws for one and heats up for the other when "Coogan" inadvertantly suggests that "Brydon"'s part be expanded.
In telling this very British story with overtones of pernicious Hollywood influence, Winterbottom recalls earlier comedies of Sweet Liberty and State and Main, both about Hollywood bowdlerizing colonial history. Shirley Henderson and Dylan Moran offer fleeting but lovably biting comic support; Ian Hart and purposely self-conscious star Gillian Anderson provide dry drollery. Though the most memorable laughs come from Coogan and Brydon's hilarious double act, Winterbottom's film eases back on the vaudeville of it all by judiciously returning to Sterne (Stephen Fry's Parson Yorick notes, "Life is chaotic...amorphous").
It's probable that Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is more movie-biz spoof than postmodern adaptation of the novel, but Winterbottom's film miraculously succeeds in doing both goals a degree of justice. Both testify to the mad chaos of "civilized" existence, and both are good for a larf.