Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

"The book is way better," is what I wish I could say about this layered whirlwind of a film. But like many people who will see Tristram Shandy, I have yet to devour Laurence Sterne' ambitious 18th century novel on which this odd little movie is based. Come to think of it, "based" is probably not the best word to describe the relationship between the two mediums. The film-recently released in NY and LA-is not an adaptation, but rather a movie about the making of a movie based on the "unfilmable" novel. It' even more complicated than that, making Shandy both highly appealing and occasionally irritating.

The whole thing begins with Steve Coogan (playing the part of actor Steve Coogan) putting on a fake nose. The nose is that of Tristram Shandy, just one of Coogan' three characters in the film (he also plays Tristram' father). In the movie that' being made, Tristram is the narrator of his own life story, and in the behind-the scenes portions, Coogan is the main character.

Still with me? Good, 'cause it' only gonna get harrier.

Next comes a chaotic scene from the movie-in-progress involving a young Tristram, the boy' penis and a windowsill. During all this, the older Tristram is onscreen acknowledging the movie being made. So it, too, is a meta-film, giving the overall product a healthy coat of self-awareness. Such winking at the audience-it could be detected as early as the opening credits-echoes the tone of the novel (according to Professor Wikipedia).

Because we only see fragments of the movie being made, the heart of Shandy lies behind the scenes. Rob Brydon, playing both Rob Brydon and Tristram' uncle, has a running childish feud with Coogan over screen time and co-star versus supporting actor status. They also debate the trivialities that can surface on a movie set, such as the proper hue of Bryden' teeth. "Tuscan Sunset" is proposed.

Though much of the dry-as-toast wit comes from the two bickering leading men, the film' gravity concerns Coogan' personal life. His girlfriend Jenny is visiting the stately mansion-cum-film set with the couple' baby in tow. She' clearly looking for some private time with the British TV star, but he' too busy being Steve Coogan. Scripts for future projects are shoved in his face; he' interviewed about the film Tristsam Shandy; he flirts with the PA with a penchant for esoteric cinema and squelches a sex scandal. In fact, the real Steve Coogan had to deal with a similar cover-up involving Courtney Love' (crack?) baby. Such blurring of fact and fiction makes the mockumentary aspect of Shandy that much more interesting.

And even with all the layering, postmodern cluster-fucking, and masturbatory film industry subject matter, director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People and the art-porn 9 Songs) has made a hilarious film. Because of the novel' intricacies and tangential nature, the process of making a loyal adaptation is absurdly arduous. Questioning the accurate location of coat pockets of the period, an embarrassingly small battle scene, and Steve Coogan being hoisted into a large prop vagina are just some of the pitfalls the crew suffers. Most telling of the inner-workings of show-business is when "huge" American star Gillian Anderson is added to the predominantly British cast to secure more funding. To suit the addition, more scenes with Brydon' character are added to the script, elevating his importance in the film and gnawing away at Coogan' fragile ego.

So if all this behind-the-scenes, "Larry Sanders Show", movies inside movies, self-referential comedy is appealing, then see Tristram Shandy. Unlike, say, Austin Powers in Goldmember, the shtick here is only grating a handful of times. Best of all, there' a moral somewhere in the chaos-you don't need a PhD., or Wikipedia-to figure it out.

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