Teaming up with Steve Coogan seems to bring out the best in Michael Winterbottom. In 24 Hour Party People, they brought us a self-reflexive, comedic take on Britain's new-wave scene; here, they confront two rather different scenes: 18th-century upper-class England and the contemporary motion picture set.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is and isn't an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The novel, described by Coogan in the film as "a postmodern classic written before there was any modern to be post about," is highly acclaimed but seldom read, filled as it is with tangents, digressions and stylistic tics (one black page in the middle of the text). Winterbottom initially intended to do a straight adaptation but found that a linear narrative version of the script, by longtime collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, came to just 30 pages. Boyce has since had a falling out with the director; he's billed here under the pseudonym "Martin Hardy." Maybe he didn't like Ian Hart's portrayal of the screenwriter "Joe."
The film adds another layer of postmodernity with the contemporary tale of filming the unfilmable, with Coogan playing an exaggerated, egomaniacal version of himself, similar to his turn in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. What This Is Spinal Tap did for heavy-metal concerts, Tristram Shandy does for the English period film, and as an adaptation, it ranks alongside, well, Adaptation in the dramatic liberties it takes with the print-to-screen process. Christopher Guest only wishes he could nail a parody homage as smart and deadpan as this. Whereas his ensemble improvisation movies are increasingly full of mighty wind, Winterbottom's is consistently smart and silly without becoming caricature. For example, reference is made in the film to the fact that, during his audition, Coogan improvised a sequence in which he pretended a hot chestnut had fallen down his pants. Later, to get back in the swing of it, he has an actual hot chestnut dropped down his pants, and the pain that ensues is palpable and hilarious. It's easy to imagine someone like Jim Carrey going way overboard with the same idea, but Coogan, in keeping it real, makes it funnier than it ought to be.
The central joke of the movie is that Coogan is ostensibly cast in the lead role of Tristram, yet the book itself, though narrated by Tristram, never gets beyond the actual birth, diverted when other characters become too distracting. To get around this issue, the director (Jeremy Northam) has created a giant fake womb for Coogan to climb inside, naked. "Real wombs don't have a window like that, do they?" the lead asks.
Just as Star Wars Episode III was eye candy for audiences that love special effects, Tristram Shandy is eye and ear candy for those who enjoy Brit-style satire. There wasn't a better Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay this month ... if indeed we can presume to call this adapted.