Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy.

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Feb. 3 2006 11:39 AM

The Neverending Story

Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy.

Steve Coogan in Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story. Click image to expand.
Steve Coogan in Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Picturehouse) is one of the most successful literary adaptations I've ever seen. It's also one of the most wildly unfaithful to its source. This paradox—that the most faithless somehow winds up being the most true—is itself a piece of twisted logic straight out of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the 1759 novel by Laurence Sterne.

Tristram Shandy is of those rare works of literature that seem to have been written in the wrong century. Even as the modern form of the novel was being born, Sterne was already messing with it: stepping outside the narrative to address the reader, apologizing for "losing" chapters that later showed up in their entirety, even including an all-black page to mourn the passing of one character and a blank page for the reader to fill in his own description of another. Filming a book that's so insistent on its own book-ness would seem the very definition of folly on a director's part, but Michael Winterbottom—an intriguingly protean British director who's been responsible for both delights like 24 Hour Party People (2002) and drags like 9 Songs (2004)—is happy to play the fool, and his gamble pays off.

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Essentially, Tristram's story is autobiography taken to its parodic extreme: He aims to narrate the whole of his life, going all the way back to the moment of his conception. Naturally, this task overwhelms him from the start, and amid the flashbacks and flash-forwards, digressions and disclaimers, Tristram never manages to get much further than the moment of his birth (shown in a series of labor scenes that are both funny and harrowing, as Tristram's father, Walter Shandy, insists on the "very latest" in birthing technology, a pair of forceps that end up breaking his infant son's nose.)

In Winterbottom's version, the adult Tristram, as well as his father, are played by the British comic Steve Coogan, who's specialized for years in variations on just this sort of character: a faux-modest buffoon who's clumsily trying to conceal his own narcissism. (One such Coogan creation was at the center of 24 Hour Party People; another appeared opposite Alfred Molina in the best segment of Jim Jarmusch's sketch film Coffee and Cigarettes.) In a modern-day frame story that slowly takes over the film, Coogan plays not Tristram Shandy but Steve Coogan, an actor on the set of a film in progress entitled Tristram Shandy. If this all sounds tiresomely postmodern, just relax—Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story does the work of sense-making for you and never loses sight of its mission to be as silly, bawdy, and entertaining as possible.

Another British comic, Rob Brydon, plays Tristram's Uncle Toby, a blustering war veteran with a wound in an unspeakable place. In the modern-day scenes, Rob Brydon is, surprise, Rob Brydon, an actor with an ego even more pitifully in need of stroking than Coogan's. The unscripted-sounding exchanges between these two are the funniest part of the movie, including an opening scene in the makeup trailer in which they speculate on the best name for the precise shade of Rob's discolored front tooth: "Tuscan Sunset?" ventures Rob. "Pub ceiling," counters Coogan. The closing credit sequence again pairs up the two in an improvised session of mumbled insults and competing Al Pacino impersonations that had the audience I saw the film with lingering on their way up the aisles for one more joke. It's one of the few times in years I've seen a movie that felt too short—I could easily have done with another 40 minutes of antic goofing.

I could attempt a catalog of the many felicities of Tristram Shandy: the nifty visual tricks that link the period story to its modern-day counterpart; the slapstick scenes that have Coogan suspended upside down in a foam-rubber uterus; or the sweet and affecting subplot about his attempts to resist the charms of a film-snob PA (Naomie Harris) with the same name as his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), with whom he's just had a baby named … Steven Coogan. But trying to enumerate everything that's good about this movie could prove as labyrinthine a task as Tristram's storytelling itself.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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