How do you go about making a movie from a novel that
has been called "unfilmable"? While some might argue that one
should not attempt such an effort, others may put forth the idea
that there are relatively few printed works that cannot somehow
be dramatized. After all, there have been adaptations of works
by James Joyce, Milan Kundera and Michael Ondaatje, to name but
three.

Surprisingly, one author appears to have proven impervious
to filmmakers -- whether it be the esteemed staff of the BBC or
Merchant/Ivory. That would be Laurence Sterne, best known for
THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN.
Undaunted, screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce and director Michael
Winterbottom (who have previously brought two classics by Thomas
Hardy to the screen as
JUDE and THE CLAIM, and who also have
earned plaudits for such contemporary works as
24-HOUR PARTY
PEOPLE
) have decided to undertake the movie. What they have
achieved is a very well thought out and at times hilarious movie
that approximates Sterne's literary posture in cinematic terms.

 What Cottrell Boyce and Winterbottom have done with
the screenplay (written under the pseudonym of Martin Handy)
is to take a "meta" approach to the material. Thus, actors like
Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson and Gillian Anderson
appear as characters in the story as well as play actors named
"Steve Coogan," "Rob Brydon," etc. There are wild moments in
the film like the arrival of a crew to film extras for the DVD
where British television personality Tony Wilson conducts the
interviews. It certainly helps to know that Coogan based his
most famous character, Alan Partridge, on Wilson. It also should
be noted that Coogan portrayed Wilson in
24-HOUR PARTY PEOPLE,
which happened to be directed by Winterbottom and written by
Cottrell Boyce and co-starred Shirley Henderson.

 
TRISTRAM SHANDY is filled with these moments and
one could almost make a drinking game out of spotting them (with
the caveat that one would get very drunk very quickly). There are
factual antecedents for many of the characters and incidents
in the film. For example, Steve Coogan purportedly took part in
a hotel room romp with Courtney Love. In the film, "Steve Coogan"
has to do an interview with a British tabloid in order squelch a story
about a hotel romp with a shady lady. In many ways, the filmmakers
were attempting to invoke a world that Sterne might have created
if he were alive today.

 The film is deliberately messy, unformed and artificial. It opens
and closes with improvisational sequences in which Brydon and
Coogan engage in a contest of one-upmanship that is quite hilarious.
And in much the way that Sterne tells the reader about his main
character, the film's audience learns a great deal about "Steve
Coogan" from his interaction on the set with the cast and crew.
It's perhaps intentional that the production assistant assigned to
Coogan is named Jennie (played by Noemie Harris) since Coogan's
girlfriend and the mother of his newborn is also Jenny (Kelly
Macdonald).

 I initially enjoyed the film when I saw it screened earlier
in the year. After reviewing the DVD (which includes the Wilson
interview, deleted and extended scenes and commentary tracks),
I felt some of it didn't hold up as well as I had hoped. It's still
a very smart film that will appeal to select audience. If you
are looking for a straightforward, stuffy adaptation of the
Sterne novel, you won't get it. If you are looking for a romp,
then check it out.

 
         Rating:                 B+
         MPAA Rating:        R for language and sexual content
         Running time:       94 mins.
Tristram Shandy:
A Cock & Bull Story
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.