A meta-movie about a meta-novel, Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story wears its conceptual mantle lightly. Based on Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century explosion of premodern postmodernism, the English director’s latest (opening Friday) is a breezy case study in adapting the unadaptable. Even more than Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze did in transforming The Orchid Thief into Adaptation‘s whirligig of tortured self-consciousness, Winterbottom takes the source material’s essential unfilmability as a given.
Tricky adaptations are often damned with faint praise—the “best possible movie” that could have been made from a difficult book. Winterbottom’s semi-improvised romp, flamboyantly clever and proudly tossed off, flaunts its utter lack of definitiveness—you sense that something else entirely might have materialized had the director and his collaborators brainstormed on a different day. “If you love Tristram Shandy, you wouldn’t want the film to be literally the book,” says Winterbottom. “That would be so against the spirit of the writing.”
This isn’t the Shandy that a structurally minded fabulist like, say, Raul Ruiz would have made. It’s a Cliffs Notes version of the novel that makes a running joke of how few people have actually read the book (and how little of it those who’ve read it can recall). Opening as a hectic costume drama then pulling back to revel in the on-set high jinks, the film co-opts Sterne’s appetite for digression and the go-for-broke spirit of his formal experiments. “Comedy’s always able to be bolder structurally,” Winterbottom says. “If something’s funny, people don’t say it’s deconstructive. Tristram Shandy can be a hard read, but if you enjoy the voice of the narrator, if you find it amusing, you don’t care where the narrative’s gone.”
Winterbottom and his co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce considered a “straight” Shandy adaptation and briefly even floated the idea of a sitcom: “We thought it would be great to do something that would never end.” They settled instead on a making-of scenario—the themes and story lines of the novel, instead of taking literal shape, often emerge from the alternately clueless and cynical cross talk among the fictionalized filmmakers and actors. It’s amusing to see a good portion of Sterne’s backbreaking opus squeezed into a breathless half-hour, and funnier still to realize that its bawdy, freewheeling tone has infected the whole project. “We decided to make the first and second parts of the movie similar,” Winterbottom says. “We could’ve shot a formal film-within-a-film and then done something completely different, but we went handheld all the way. They step off set, and it’s into a country house hotel, which is similar to the set.”
The blurring of fiction and reality has been a recurring theme in recent Winterbottom (the real sex in 9 Songs, the real refugees in In This World). Here it extends to the multiple personalities assigned to the lead actor, Steve Coogan, Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People star, who plays Tristram, father Walter, and a version of himself. The many jabs Coogan withstands—playing as they do on the actor’s tabloid troubles and his most famous comic creation, talk show host Alan Partridge—will inevitably be better appreciated by British viewers. “How people envision Steve is not far from how Steve plays himself, with a lot of flaws,” says Winterbottom. “My idea is to show people behaving stupidly, but I hope it comes across as quite warm.”
The on-screen relationship between Coogan and his co-star Rob Brydon, a highly regarded TV comedian in his first big movie role, evolved from the actors’ friendly real-life rivalry. “Originally I thought Rob should be quite naive, but he wanted to keep having a go at Steve, so we let him,” says Winterbottom. Brydon says, “I must admit I was a little uncomfortable portraying myself as a lapdog around Steve.” Coogan adds, “We’re secure enough with each other as performers. As comedy actors, you become comfortable exploiting your own weaknesses.” Brydon points out, though, that their self-deprecating shtick is itself a form of self-aggrandizement. “There I am in the film, concerned about my baldness, which I am. On the one hand, you’re very open and there’s no vanity, but in some ways, it’s the ultimate vanity—it’s a double bluff.” Coogan interjects, deadpan, “I’m prepared to sacrifice my vanity on the altar of comedy.”
Not least, Tristram Shandy is a workaholic director’s fond portrait of the place he knows best: a movie set. Fidgety and fast-talking in person, Winterbottom—in town for last fall’s New York Film Festival—was visibly annoyed that he had been summoned by Shandy‘s U.S. distributor from Iran, where he was shooting
The Road to Guantánamo, a doc-drama hybrid about the Tipton Three, British Muslims who were captured in Afghanistan and detained by the U.S. military for two years; Guantánamo will be Winterbottom’s 14th feature in 11 years. “It’s more enjoyable making a film than not working, or finding financing, or sitting around talking about the film you made,” he says. “Agonizing, building sets, controlling every frame—that’s one way of working. I like to think that as you’re making the film there are still opportunities for things to happen. I like the idea that I’m not in control.”