It should be too early in the year to expect a good movie, let alone a great one; anything released prior to the Oscars is bound to be forgotten by spring. Yet here it is, the first -- dare we use the term that's been all but stripped of meaning by journalistic hacks -- masterpiece of 2006. And from the director of 9 Songs, last year's sex-'n'-grainy-music-video art-porn flick.
Michael Winterbottom is aptly named: Many of his movies feel as emotionally chilly as the depths of the coldest season, but teaming up with Steve Coogan seems to bring out the best in him. In 24 Hour Party People, they brought us a self-reflective, comedic take on Britain's new-wave scene; here, they take on two rather different scenes, those of the 18th-century English upper class 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 itself as "a postmodern classic written before there was any modern to be post about," is highly acclaimed but very seldom read cover-to-cover, filled as it is with tangents, digressions, and unusual stylistic devices, such as having one entirely black page in the middle of the text. Winterbottom initially intended to do a straight adaptation, only to find that a linear narrative version of the script by longtime collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce came to only 30 pages. Boyce has since had a falling-out with the director and is billed here under the pseudonym "Martin Hardy." Maybe he didn't like the way Ian Hart portrays "Joe," the screenwriter.
All those pages seem to have made it to the screen (yes, even the all-black one), but surrounding them, adding another layer of postmodernity, is the contemporary tale of filming the unfilmable, with Coogan playing an exaggerated, egomaniacal version of himself, similar to what you may have seen 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, but while his ensemble improvisation movies are increasingly full of mighty wind, Winterbottom's is consistently smart and silly without becoming caricature.
To cite one obvious example: Reference is made, during the course of the film, to the fact that Coogan improvised a sequence during the audition 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, while narrated by Tristram, never gets beyond the actual birth, as various diversions into 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 in all seriousness.
Meanwhile, co-star Rob Brydon (himself) threatens to get more screen time than the star, which leads to all sorts of petty, passive-aggressive ego battles, notably one that involves the size of their respective shoes. Coogan has recently become a new father, and his baby's mother (Kelly Macdonald) has come all the way to the set so they can spend some time together, yet he rarely has time for her; meanwhile, the ultracute film-snob production runner (28 Days Later's Naomie Harris) seems to have a thing for the leading man, which he encourages by bluffing his way through a discussion of Fassbinder films. Brydon then gets a case of nerves when Hollywood star Gillian Anderson (herself) is cast as a last-minute love interest.
Fans of Coogan will get some of the subtle references dropped throughout. Notably, he is interviewed at one point by a reporter played by Tony Wilson, who was portrayed by Coogan in 24 Hour Party People and was the inspiration for Coogan's U.K. TV character Alan Partridge, whom everyone in the movie does an impersonation of (Brydon also does a killer Roger Moore).
Just as Star Wars Episode III was eye candy for audiences who love special effects, Tristram Shandy is eye and ear candy for those who enjoy Brit-style satire. There isn't an Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay this year that's better . . . if indeed we can presume to call this "adapted."