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To dream the impossible film: Brit versatilitist Michael Winterbottom follows his hardcore art-porn 9 Songs with a strenuously eccentric adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s comic masterpiece of 18th-century postmodernism, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
One of the most admired, if least read, works in English literature, Sterne’s convoluted satire presents problems that might pretzel-knot Charlie Kaufman’s brain. No book has ever been more about itself. When the critic Viktor Shklovsky called Tristram Shandy “the most typical novel in world literature,” he meant that in its compulsive digressions, obtrusive narrative voice, and seemingly arbitrary chronological structure, it was the most novelistic of novels.
Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy references the novel throughout, but it’s essentially a movie about making a movie. Indeed, it seems to pick up where 24 Hour Party People left off—a cast of comedians headed by Steve Coogan, rolling back time and regaling the camera. More droll than hilarious, Coogan plays Tristram and his father, as well as “Steve Coogan,” the actor who plays them. Rob Brydon similarly plays himself and Tristram’s Uncle Toby—he of the mysterious groin wound—with Gillian Anderson as the star imported for the role of the Widow Wadman.
One of the movie’s running jokes is the love the actors profess for their unreadable source—acting! And as in the book, various events are revisited: the hero’s accidental circumcision, the conditions of his conception, and most frequently, the circumstances of his birth. Winterbottom uses that crucial scene to introduce the crew and segue into a narrative situation—the birth of his movie—concerning a weekend visit from Steve’s girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their infant baby.
Made literal, many of Sterne’s japes cease to be funny, but the viewer is carried along by the backstage plot. Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy resembles Olivier Assayas’s meta-movie Irma Vep—with less at stake. Assayas was making a serious comedy about film history; Winterbottom is demonstrating his own cleverness, although the editing shenanigans that intermittently parallel Sterne’s narrative strategies are not that far from the 18th-century “new wave” of Tony Richardson’s manic Tom Jones.
Sterne continually steers the reader away from the described action to the moment the action is described; Winterbottom, necessarily less rigorous, focuses on the (fictitious) time of its filming. Rushes are viewed, producers soothed, agents contacted, interviews granted, flirtations pursued. Coogan plays himself as narcissistic, vain, and easily bored. Much humor depends on his capacity to maintain his cool under absurd circumstances—lowered upside down and naked into a giant model womb.
The funniest thing in this Tristram Shandy is Coogan’s put-upon sense of noblesse oblige. Why should he shoulder the burden of narrative when he can just be . . . himself? For all the on-set antics, appropriated Fellini music, and throwaway gags, the movie is most successful when Coogan is pulling faces for the mirror, aimlessly trading Pacino imitations with his sidekick Brydon, or riffing on the color of the latter’s teeth.