Powdered Wit

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in the film about the unmaking of the film.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in the film about the unmaking of the film. (Revolution)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

By reputation, Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" was postmodern several centuries before the invention of modern. You might say of Vicar Sterne: How did he know it was coming? Anyway, it was a mock autobiography that forgets to include its own narrator, published to the delight of many in 1759, and it has not been out of print since.

It was said to be impossible to film, because there's no story: It begins with Tristram's conception and finishes with his birth, so that he still hasn't showed up by book's end. The writer keeps getting so sidetracked, diverted, spun this way and that, distracted, disassociated and whatever, that not only is there no there there, there's no here here. He ends up constructing bits of family history (his father is a major character, as is his war-castrated Uncle Toby), philosophical disquisition, science, music, even a pure black page to mourn the death of a character. Completely impossible.

So, no, they haven't made a movie about "Tristram Shandy." They've made -- see if you can stay with this, with so unsure a navigator as me at the helm -- a movie about how hard it is to make a movie of "Tristram Shandy." And they proved their point! In this hyper-text exercise, it resembles "Adaptation" to some degree, and possibly even "Seinfeld," the sitcom in which a comedian played a comedian who occasionally tried to create a sitcom starring himself.

The filmmaker here is the ever-creative Michael Winterbottom, a clever chap who seems to require intense intellectual engagement before he'll commit to a project. Some of his films are marvelous and some are awful, but all are different (and "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story" is about as different as it gets). He made the bleak period piece "Jude," complete to its child murders and child suicides, a movie so painful to watch I've repressed all memories of it. He made the shattering "Welcome to Sarajevo," a brilliant evocation of correspondent culture in a war-wracked city, actually filmed in a war-wracked city. He made the most enjoyable "24 Hour Party People" and the most sexual "9 Songs" and the most baffling "Code 46."

For "Tristram," he reteams with Steve Coogan, the mild-mannered but shrewd British actor who starred in "24 Hour Party People" and went on to some kind of second-tier big-movie stardom in "Around the World in 80 Days": He was the baffled bloke standing next to Jackie Chan.

Coogan, of course, plays Tristram Shandy. He also plays Tristram Shandy's father, Walter (a bigger role, actually); then he plays a British actor named "Steve Coogan," who has just made a Jackie Chan pic called "Around the World in 80 Days" and is starring in a movie called "Tristram Shandy," being directed by a "Mark" (Jeremy Northam) who is actually standing in for Winterbottom, who is just off camera.

The conceit is clever if the stuff is funny. If it isn't funny, it just falls apart.

It's pretty funny. As the film progresses, it all but loses contact with the "Tristram Shandy" story and instead becomes a film about making a movie where nobody's really in charge, everybody has a substantially different agenda, but the overall culture is so polite and professional it precludes any real screaming. Mostly people just miscommunicate. The humor is seen in the little flashes of panic or confusion that run through their eyes as the conversations they're having go ever less subtly out of control.

Besides scenes from "Tristram Shandy" being acted in full costume and full-frontal seriousness, we see the actors at rushes; the producer in committee with reenactors who hope to pitch in to provide a big battle scene that nobody is sure will be in the movie; the conflict between Coogan, who doesn't want to do a big-star thing, and his co-star, Rob Brydon, who subtly resents his greater eminence; the smiling, drifting presence of Northam's non-take-charge guy, and on and on.

An amusing digression follows the arrival on the set of the woman Coogan keeps referring to as "Agent Mulder": American star Gillian Anderson flies in for two weeks, upsetting everybody and briefly changing the concept of the film. That Anderson played Scully, not Mulder, on "The X-Files" is a prime example of the movie's comic mechanisms.

Then there's the issue of the two Jennies, one Coogan's assistant and one his girlfriend and mother of his son, also named "Steve Coogan."

The movie recalled, for me at least, two similar projects. One was Karel Reisz's "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which was a postmodern postmodernist movie. It was about a love affair in the 1880s (from the great John Fowles novel) but it was also about a love affair in the1980s between the two actors (Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep) who played the lovers in the historical film. The situations in the parallel narratives grew more and more similar, until the two stories essentially became one. (I hope; that's a 25-year-old memory.)

Then there's Al Pacino's "documentary," "Looking for Richard," in which the actor observes himself trying to make a film version of Shakespeare's "Richard II," which gradually becomes a highly truncated version of "Richard II."

So "Tristram Shandy" is full of games; you don't actually watch it so much as indulge it and admire its cleverness. It's something between a movie and a "movie."

Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (91 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity and casual profanity.

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