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With: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Jeremy Northam, Gillian Anderson, Kelly Macdonald, Ian Hart, Stephen Fry
Written by: Martin Hardy, based upon a novel by Laurence Sterne
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Running Time: 94
Date: 07/17/2005

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sterne, Hollywood, Sterne

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Published between 1759-67, Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, blew the lid off of literature. It featured a narrator that hadn't yet been born, stories that wandered off to nowhere, and even totally blank pages. Since the invention of the motion picture camera, this novel has been considered unfilmable.

But director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Code 46) had a great idea. Rather than film the novel, he would do what Sterne did; his adaptation would simply reference itself as well as the novel. It's the new age of post-post modern.

After this initial idea, however, Winterbottom doesn't really employ anything new. He uses most of the same tales of egomaniacal actors and bizarre directorial flourishes that most movies about movies (Living in Oblivion, Bowfinger, Hollywood Ending, etc.) have already adopted. One sequence featuring a giant womb will remind some viewers of Spinal Tap.

And so Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story becomes Steve Coogan's film. Playing himself playing Tristram Shandy, Coogan embodies a walking ego but without the skill or intelligence to justify it. He continually lusts for attention from the director and attractive female underlings, while trying to stomp down his nearest competition, co-star Rob Brydon (best known for his many appearances on BBC TV).

While the rest of the crew ponders the artistic merit of an expensive battle sequence, Coogan whines about the height of his shoes (they should elevate him above Rob).

This stuff is strictly Ben Stiller material, but genuine sparks fly when Coogan and Brydon spar together onscreen. In one sequence, Brydon tries to get Coogan to comment upon the yellowness of his teeth, and in another they trade Al Pacino impersonations. Coogan can barely stifle his giggles, and the fun is infectious.

Oddly, Winterbottom's attempts at the film-of-the-novel actually work. Coogan makes a better Tristram than he does Coogan, and the scenes in which he plays his father witnessing his own birth can be very amusing. Jokes about forceps, by virtue of their age, at least have the advantage of freshness.

Gillian Anderson, perhaps spoofing her acclaimed performance in The House of Mirth (2000), appears as the production's obligatory American star, and a hoard of familiar British faces play either themselves or other characters.

The new Tristram is undeniably funny, albeit in intermittent chunks. However, the connection between the novel, the film-within-a-film and the real-life egos never really coalesces, and unlike its source, it doesn't blow the lid off of anything.

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