(director: Michael Winterbottom; screenwriters: Martin Hardy/based on “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” by Laurence Sterne; cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind; editor: Peter Christelis; music: Christopher Barnett and Michael Nyman; cast: Steve Coogan (Tristram Shandy/Walter Shandy/Steve Coogan), Rob Brydon (Toby Shandy/Rob Brydon), Keeley Hawes (Elizabeth Shandy/Keeley Hawes), Shirley Henderson (Susannah/Shirley Henderson), Dylan Moran (Dr. Slop/Dylan Moran), Jeremy Northam (Mark), Naomie Harris (Jennie/The Runner), Kelly Macdonald (Jenny/Steve Coogan’s Girlfriend), Ian Hart (Joe), Gillian Anderson (Widow Wadman/Gillian Anderson); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Andrew Eaton; Picturehouse; 2005-UK)

“Never picked up any steam to run with its cock and bull story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the great works in literature (but widely unread and considered by many to be unreadable) and a masterpiece of postmodernism, but is thought to be unfilmable. Eclectic Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (“9 Songs”/”The Claim”/”24 Hour Party People”) takes a crack at it by filming it as a ‘film within a film.’ What he gets is a docudrama on the making of the film which had some amusing moments, but the novel itself eluded being filmed with any significance only to be used instead as a point of reference. It’s mainly about how clever and daring Winterbottom thinks he is by doing something others wouldn’t. The screenplay is by Martin Hardy

The novel told the story of its snobbish title character from the moment of conception, and included many digressions and unfinished anecdotes. The film starts out as an attempt to tell of events in the novel in a straightforward manner, using the critical birth scene with the drunk Dr. Slop (Dylan Moran) delivering the baby to set the stage for the novel and introduce the characters in front of Tristram’s ancestral home of Shandy Hall, but the film soon turns out to be mostly about the making of the film itself. Comedian Steve Coogan (onetime British television star) plays Tristram and his father, as well as himself. Rob Brydon plays Tristram’s Uncle Toby—addled with a dynasty ending groin wound from the 1695 siege at Namur—and also himself. The third star is Gillian Anderson, imported from Hollywood, who plays the role of the Widow Wadman and herself.

When Tristram is being filmed there’s a weekend visit from Steve’s sweet girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their infant baby, rushes viewed by the crew, producers worried about the ‘big battle’ scene being calmed, agents talking on the phone, an interview granted with a tabloid reporter who has an unflattering lap dancer story on Coogan he’s willing to trade for an exclusive fluff interview, and a flirtatious romance between the film buff production runner Jenny (Naomie Harris) and the bored, obnoxious and vain Coogan. The humor in the film comes from Coogan being lowered upside down and naked into a giant model womb. The backstage humor is mostly from Coogan’s rap with Brydon, as he goes on about the color of his teeth, frets over who will get the most screen time, makes monkey faces for the mirror, does imitations of Al Pacino and chatters away mindlessly about what he’s doing in the film.

I didn’t think it added up to a very interesting or daring film, but there were a few diverting goofy moments and satiric riffs at how movie people talk in unguarded moments. But as a whole the film never picked up any steam to run with its cock and bull story. If Winterbottom wanted to be daring he would have chucked the docudrama and actually have tried to film the novel as is. If Winterbottom wanted to be “genuinely funny,” which comes out in the film as what the filmmaker thought in a self-congratulatory sense it was, then perhaps more Monthy Python should have been thrown in and less Fellini 81/2.