In an amusing new version of Laurence Sterne's supposedly unfilmable novel of the 1760s, British comedian Steve Coogan (I'm Alan Partridge) stars in a triple role (as himself, Tristram, and Tristram's father). As Coogan notes, Tristram Shandy "was postmodern even before there was modernism to be post about."
Not long after the birth of the novel, Sterne was already subverting its conventions with a self-conscious narrator, interrupted episodes, crude drawings (centuries before Vonnegut) -- and even, after the death of a minor character, an all-black page of mourning.
Director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) finds cinematic equivalents: Special effects transform close-ups of 18th-century military maps into live-action battle sequences. Tristram's mother screams while giving birth as the director sits calmly three feet away. Coogan jumps into the frame at odd angles. The screen suddenly goes silent and black.
Nearly all the funny moments in this book are represented: the near-disaster of Tristram's birth with newfangled forceps; the comic obsession of Tristram's Uncle Toby with his own long-ago military exploits; the elaborate curse of excommunication directed by a quack against an inept servant; the pursuit by the sexually aggressive Widow Wadman of naive Uncle Toby.
Extras are sparse and disappointing. The best feature by far has actor Stephen Fry (Wilde), who plays Parson Yorick, discussing both the novel and Sterne's life (including the incredible story of what happened to Sterne's corpse).
But many of the 21st-century sequences feel tacked-on and self-indulgent: Coogan flirts with a production assistant, struggles to balance work with family, deals with publicists, parties with cast members. The difference is that while Sterne's digressions reflect on Tristram's story, Coogan's don't create any meaningful connections. For A Cock and Bull Story to behave like a shaggy dog, its tail-wagging has to lead, implausibly yet delightfully, back to some semblance of where we started. (Rated R)