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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

The First “Must-See” Film of the New Year? Absolutely.

Very loosely based on Laurence Sterne's famously unadaptable 18th-century comic novel, Michael Winterbottom's (24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs) latest film, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is, contrary to the title, a film about the making of a film called "Tristram Shandy" with actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves, other performers playing fictional characters (with fictional names), as well as playing the characters inside the film adaptation. It's a dizzying, stimulating film about, among other subjects, the art, craft, and compromises involved in making independent films, translating or adapting work in one media into another, a sly critique of media-driven celebrity culture, and, most importantly, the humor needed to cope with all of the above. That Tristram Shandy is an often hilarious, consistently entertaining film should be said up front, so that it doesn't get lost in description or analysis.

Viewers are immediately clued in that they won't be seeing a straightforward adaptation of Sterne's novel from the first scene. Steve Coogan (who plays Tristram Shandy, Shandy's father, Walter, and "himself") and Rob Brydon (who plays Captain Toby Shandy, Tristram's uncle, as well as some version of himself) sit impatiently as makeup artists work their magic. Steve and Rob slip into mundane, oddball discussions about fake noses, teeth, and, whether Rob is a co-lead (he thinks he is) or a supporting actor (Steve's take). This first scene neatly exposes Steve and Rob's friendly, if competitive relationship. Steve is revealed as an egocentric, self-absorbed actor more concerned about the size of his role, the number of lines he has, than in the quality of the film (he leaves that to the director, Mark, played by Jeremy Northam). In one of the better running gags, Steve wants new shoes with higher heels, so he can tower over the shorter Rob.

Tristram Shandy segues briefly into recreations of scenes from Sterne's novel, most of them centered not on Tristram (who hasn't been born yet), but on Tristram's eccentric father Walter. Tristram/Walter directly addresses the audience or commenting on events as they're unfolding or about to unfold with an omnipotent, authorial voice. The adaptation, however, continually returns to a central, primordial scene, Tristram's misfortune-laden birth, beginning with his ill-timed conception, his father's obsession with the newest in medical technology, forceps (cue confidence-demolishing demonstrations by the local physician, Dr. Slop [Dylan Moran]) and, of course, Tristram's mother, Elizabeth's (Keeley Hawes), painfully extended labor (while Walter, Toby, and the good doctor commiserate about multiple subjects).

Little else of Sterne's sprawling, digressive novel makes it into the film, with the exception of a purposely unimpressive battle scene, due to a budget shortfall, Uncle Toby's miniature recreation of a famous battle on the Shandy estate, and later, thanks to Steve's ad-libbed suggestion to the screenwriter, Joe (Ian Hart), the addition of a romantic subplot involving Toby and the Widow Woodman (Gillian Anderson), which creates new tensions between Steve and Rob. Meanwhile, Steve has to contend with his girlfriend, Jennie (Kelly Macdonald), his newborn son, long, grueling days on set, an attraction to Jennie (Naomie Harris), a production assistant who name drops German and French film directors, and a reporter from a British tabloid interested in writing a puff piece on him.

Heady material, no? Tristram Shandy falls into the narrow class of film and fiction works that can be described as "meta-fictions." Meta-fictions are essentially about the art of creating fiction, baring narrative devices that are ordinarily unacknowledged by writer or reader. At their worst, they can appear self-indulgent and pretentious, the work of desperate, creatively blocked filmmakers. At their best, though, they can provide readers (and viewers) with unique, insightful pleasures. Tristram Shandy belongs in the second category, thanks to a witty, clever script by Martin Hardy, crisp, sharp-edged cinematography by Marcel Zyskind (heavy on the free-form Steadicam shots for the film-within-a-film scenes), and a light, effervescent score by longtime Peter Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman (and others, including a little known composer by the name of J.S. Bach).

Tristram Shandy slips up once, but it's easily forgivable. Winterbottom and Hardy decide to go one "meta" deeper (or is it higher?) in the closing scenes, scenes meant to remind the audience that we're actually seeing actors playing fictionalized, scripted versions of themselves. This late inning unveiling of another fiction-within-the-fiction-within-the-fiction might prove confusing to some viewers and annoying to others (it wasn't, at least not for this reviewer). Others might find the film-within-a-film structure self-indulgent (the equivalent of intellectual masturbation) or, at minimum, might find Tristram Shandy to be much ado about anything.

Alas, as the "director" suggests at one point, maybe comedy (and entertainment) is what art should aspire to rather than profound, life-changing philosophical sermons masquerading as art. Maybe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars