Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, February 24, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

In Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, unpredictable filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, Welcome to Sarajevo) makes meta fun as Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan playing Tristram Shandy (and Tristram's father) in an underbudgeted version of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One of the first comic novels in the English language and famously fragmented ("Postmodern before there was modern", as someone here says), the book has long been viewed as unfilmable. The movie, being about that conundrum, has no problem finding plenty of stuff to film.

The results may be discomfiting to viewers who don't like the dry, hard-edged reality humour of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show. But they are fast-moving, rich rewards for people who know something about the peculiar neuroses of filmmakers, and actors who haven't bothered to read the source material they are so proud to be part of.

In particular, the fellow called Steve is a charming, if sometimes churlish, poseur who can barely bother to attend to his current girlfriend (Trainspotting's Kelly Macdonald) even when she comes for a short set visit with their new baby. Mostly, he feels compelled to flirt with a comely assistant (Naomie Harris, of 28 Days Later) and to vie with funny costar Rob Brydon, who plays Tristram's brother, Toby, about who has the bigger part-not to mention the tallest shoes.

Others on the scene include a director (Jeremy Northam) barely keeping up with the project, a cynically detached writer (an unrecognizable Ian Hart), and journalists sniffing for scandals Steve is quite capable of providing. (One is Tony Wilson, whom Coogan played in Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People.)

Amusing actors doing versions of themselves and Shandy characters include Stephen Fry as a tubby parson; Dylan Moran as Dr. Slop, who delivers Tristram with brutal forceps; and Gillian Anderson, whose Widow Wadman creates a problem for Brydon, who has a fixation on the former X Files star, and for Coogan, losing screen time to Brydon since she is Toby's love interest.

It's possible, even likely, that none of this adds up to anything important. Farce is usually engaging only in the moment. But this Cock and Bull Story has a strong undercurrent of melancholy that surfaces from time to time. The film ends with the birth of Tristram Shandy, and there's something ineffably sad about this start to the human comedy.

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