Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an adaptation -- sort of -- of Laurence Sterne's 18th century nine-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I haven't read it, but a description of the book is noteworthy; its ingenuity seems best summed up by a line from the movie: "Tristram Shandy was postmodern before there was any modern to be post about."
Apparently, in many ways, Sterne's work was ahead of its time, playing with the conventions of the structure of a novel and turning them on their heads -- with linear storytelling going out the window, the readers regularly addressed, and the process of writing the very book itself commented upon.
Michael Winterbottom's movie follows suit, and the result could be described as Tom Jones meets Adaptation. It begins with a funny conversation between the two main actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, before diving into the Tristram Shandy story proper, with Coogan as Tristram, who talks directly to the audience and tells the story of his birth in the most roundabout way possible. About a half-hour in, however, the movie jumps back out of Tristram's story and begins to follow the actors and crew as they attempt to discuss, plan, and film other integral scenes.
It's here where the movie spends the majority of its time and, unfortunately, loses quite a bit of steam for me. The protagonist is now Steve Coogan himself, battling co-star egos, juggling time for his visiting girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) with their baby in tow, and dealing with other moviemaking inconveniences. The movie turns into a lampoon of the filmmaking process, which has its share of highly funny moments (the spontaneous casting of Gillian Anderson is hilarious) but otherwise feels like territory well-tread.
The idea itself is good -- taking the anti-structure spirit of an "unfilmable" book and applying it directly to the movie -- but the problem here is that it's lost its novelty factor. The book may have been groundbreaking in its day, but today both the concept of poking fun at the movie industry and the meta-movie concept have been in the collective conscience long enough to account for the production of hackneyed movies like Bewitched.
At least A Cock and Bull Story works as much as it needs to; genuine laughs can be found here, all the way through the end credits. Although not offering much in the way of new insight on its subjects, it's a modestly good time. The film's only big sin, then, is that it's no longer fresh, which is less a statement about the movie than it is, sadly, about the genre.
(Released by Picturehouse and rated "R" for language and sexual content.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.