Laurence Sterne's bawdy, untamable, altogether astonishing 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman stands proud on the shelf of great books famous for being owned wisely but not read too much. Posited as the fictional autobiography of an eccentric English gent, the book is a cavalcade of digressions, narrative fractures, and formal messing-about that predates (and outdazzles) postmodern literary gamesmanship by centuries and miles. It is, safe to say, unfilmable. And yet here it is, filmed to perfection by Michael Winterbottom as Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story the first great, mind-tickling treat of the new movie year.
But, as the carnival barker promises, that's not all! In a fit of irresistible playfulness, the filmmaker operates at a level of addictive challenge known to Sudoku puzzle players as ''diabolical.'' Working off a wonderfully sparkling screenplay, Winterbottom creates a narrative not only about the loquacious Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan), who tells the story of his own birth and odd family, but also about the making of the very movie we are watching. Coogan (a brilliant Brit comedian known in the U.S. as that actor from Coffee and Cigarettes, but a certified comic genius and celebrity at home, forever identified with his shallow fictional chat-show alter ego Alan Partridge) plays actor Steve Coogan, a certified comic genius and celebrity, etc. The fictional star is as vain, shallow, pompous, and distractable a showbiz fellow off camera as his Tristram is in waistcoat and wig; for him, a half-inch height advantage, built into his shoes, is crucial to his notion of character development.
This Steve Coogan ignores his gentle girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and their infant son who visit him on location, argues with the director (Jeremy Northam) and screenwriter (Ian Hart), and competes childishly with his costar Rob Brydon (hilarious fellow comedian Rob Brydon), who plays the role of Tristram's Uncle Toby. His character has, it's safe to say, never bothered to read the book on which his movie is based.
This Steve Coogan is a petty man who represents the movie biz at its most risible, an industry type ripe for parody; he's also a marvelous indeed deeply apt incarnation of everything Sterne's fictional hero embodies, all appetites, insecurities, and vigors.
The movie-within-a-movie conceit isn't new, and neither is the parodic notion of the movie-about-the-business-of-making-movies. But rarely has such meta-ness been put to such deep and insightful literary use, or handled with such heart. A knowing chronicle of cock and bull in all its forms and charms, the movie swings with inventive pleasures, the work of a protean filmmaker who thrives on experimentation (9 Songs, In This World, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo no Winterbottom project is like any other). Eventually, Gillian Anderson shows up as Gillian Anderson, cast last minute for a romantic subplot. A real New York Times reporter on set to interview Winterbottom about 9 Songs gets cast as a NYT reporter. And the prospect of reading Laurence Sterne beckons as a reward the very opposite of homework.