A daunting test--more like a hazing or a prank--for unsuspecting English majors, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. has for nearly 2 1/2 centuries been the least-read classic in the canon. The novel is such a wildly, willfully discursive history of its hero and narrator (whose birth does not occur until more than halfway through the book) that the notion of turning it into a 94-min. film raises two stubborn questions: How? and Why?
The answer comes in a comment on the novel in the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: the book is "a postmodern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about. So it's way ahead of its time." Its spirit can be caught only in a blithe, brazen adaptation of the sort that director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have concocted with the aid of game cast members who apply the scalpel of parody to themselves as well as to the material. To put this in simple English, Cock and Bull begins by dramatizing some events from the novel, then breaks open into a faux documentary on the making of a film called Tristram Shandy.
The plot? Oh, never mind, except to note that it sidles up to the hero's birth and impromptu, painfully comic circumcision. What matters here is the casting of the two--sorry, six--leads. Steve Coogan, the Brit comic best known for incarnating Alan Partridge, a suavely unknowing TV host, plays four roles: Tristram, his father, Sterne and a put-upon egomaniac star named Steve Coogan. Rob Brydon, who has worked often with Coogan, plays Tristram's Uncle Toby and "Rob Brydon." Much of the film's grace and brass come from their comic kinship, as when they compare Pacino impressions, or discuss the exact shade of Toby's teeth. Brydon suggests "not white," "hint of yellow" and "Tuscan sunset" and finally "soothing": "I think you'd decorate a child's nursery in this color."
Everyone takes sporting lumps, from Winterbottom, who (as impersonated by Jeremy Northam) is seen as impervious to his actors' pleas for help, to Gillian Anderson, the X-Files alum who is imported at the last minute to pump up the film's marquee allure. (Someone asks if she's "the one in Baywatch.") But it's Coogan who places every aspect of his personal and professional life on the altar of mockery. Was his one starring role in a big American film (Around the World in 80 Days) an abysmal flop? Put it in the movie. Was he discovered, while still married, in a London hotel with two lap dancers? Allude to that as well. And has he, like everyone on the set, not read the novel? Then let him complain, "Would you believe a book this big doesn't have an index?"
This may seem too inside-cricket for a U.S. audience. And it's true that Cock and Bull is so postpostmodern, it's very nearly postmovie. But it's no less diverting for all that. It would be a shame if the great novel no one has read becomes the terrific film nobody bothers to see.