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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Genre: Comedy
Rated: R
Directed by
: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran
Released by: Picturehouse Films

In Short: A neurotic leading man and hapless film crew attempt to adapt a notoriously unfilmable novel into an occasionally hilarious, but often too clever for its own good, postmodern work.

A Slight Tryst
Too Much Bull Makes Tristram a Dull Boy
By Duncan Birmingham

Is there any other director who’s tried his hand at such a vast kaleidoscope of genres as Michael Winterbottom? In just the last four years alone, he’s given us a political quasi-documentary (“In This World”), a rave-culture biopic (“24 Hour Party People”), a sci-fi tale (“Code 47”), and an art house porno (“9 Songs”). It’s no wonder then that he took up the challenge of adapting Lawrence Stern’s famously schizophrenic and rambling 18th century novel that’s long been thought to be unfilmable.

Winterbottom’s solution is to make a postmodern film-within-a-film as dizzying and self-referential and sprawling as his source material. The effect is fascinating and amusing, yet wildly uneven. The story flashes between the costumed film version of “Tristram Shandy” and a behind-the-scenes look at the frenzied making of this period piece. Steve Coogan (re-teaming with Winterbottom after the exhilarating “24 Hour Party People”) plays Tristram as well as Tristram’s father and a smarmy, narcissistic version of himself (or maybe it’s a selfless version, who knows?). The film kicks off with an extended set-piece of a harried birth scene at the 18th century English manor. When the cameras pull back, we’re thrust into the on-set tribulations of star Coogan juggling the demands of a nosy gossip reporter, a sexy assistant, his neglected wife and baby and the last minute addition of Gillian Anderson (playing herself) to the eccentric cast.

Wonderful comic vignettes, funny cameos, spots of both black and British humor and an abundance of inside-jokes about the movie industry and English literature keep the film afloat. Coogan is a bumbling comic fireball akin to a British Larry David; a scene in which he demonstrates how he would look if a hot chestnut were dropped down his pants is a hilarious bit of slapstick. His jealous bickering with his film’s co-star (an equally strong Rob Brydon playing himself and the film’s colorful Uncle Toby) provides plenty of chuckles and serves as one of the few tangible storylines.

Despite the humor, the film-within-a-film premise and behind-the-scenes look is well-tread territory (on HBO alone) and the story’s cleverness never stops winking long enough to take any of the characters seriously. That may well be the point, but it limits the film to being a droll diversion. “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” is a literate grab bag, never dull and packed with witty moments and jazzy digressions, but ultimately a bit slight.

(Updated 01/21/08 NJ)

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