- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

The prospect of a satisfying movie version of Laurence Sterne’s outrageously discursive, sprawling and whimsical 18th-century comic novel “Tristram Shandy” was always remote. It resists adaptation as stubbornly as any work of fiction on the classic shelf. So it comes as no surprise to discover that the English director Michael Winterbottom and a company of would-be droll pranksters have failed to contrive a triumph from a supremely eccentric literary milestone.

In their short-winded but sometimes amusing beau geste called “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” the filmmakers take two approaches to the author’s systematic digressions and refusal to sustain a plot. They re-enact a number of episodes in costume — the more promising interludes of domestic, romantic or bawdy slapstick — and replace Sterne’s obscurely pedantic-erudite digressions with their own modern-dress sidelights, depicting behind-the-camera rivalry and interplay or fleeting production crises.

A straight costume romp might have been the smarter move, as the project is at its weakest as a movie within a movie.

The highlights are heavily indebted to Sterne’s humorous hyperbole and horseplay. For example, the obstetric hysteria and mishaps that accompany the birth of Tristram, who suffers a broken nose while being extracted by Dr. Slop’s new tool, the forceps, get an early and rousing re-enactment.

Shirley Henderson — Moaning Myrtle of the Harry Potter films — is a delight as Shandy housemaid Susannah, who scrambles instructions on what the baby is supposed to be named. Gillian Anderson makes a belated but dazzling appearance as a widow with designs on Tristram’s beatific Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon), whose one and only passion is his replica of the fortifications at Namur, circa 1692, constructed on a lawn of the Shandy estate.

The women in the cast make far happier impressions than the men. A conspicuous example is Kelly Macdonald, the heroine of “Gosford Park,” cast in the nominally minor role of Jenny. She is the girlfriend of leading man Steve Coogan, a saturnine washout as Tristram, his father Walter Shandy, the narrator and a self-caricature also named Steve Coogan. One of the present-day subplots concerns Mr. Coogan’s fleeting attraction to a production assistant named Jennie (Naomie Harris), who is far more knowledgeable about movies and literature than he. But Miss Macdonald is so enchanting as a young mother (tending their infant while visiting the set) that even harmless intimations of infidelity strike a wretched note.

Neither Mr. Coogan nor Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby persuasively reincarnate the fraternal contrasts and loyalties of the Shandy brothers, and neither looks at home in a mid-18th-century setting. The intended co-starring interplay seems edgy in ways that preclude funny payoffs.

The book’s maddening aspects (it’s easy to find it unreadable every 10 pages or so) are ameliorated to some extent by the author’s magisterial comic outlook. The mixture of high-minded pedantry and slapstick calamity that distinguishes the Shandy household is an enduring model for human nature and society. Sterne possessed an authoritative cockeyed vision while placing numerous obstacles in the way of sustained storytelling pleasure.

Playing the most playable scenes is probably as close as one can come to a faithful adaptation, and Mr. Winterbottom achieves a bit of what’s achievable. Nevertheless, the closest thing to a “Tristram Shandy” keeper would probably be a recording of W.C. Fields reciting his favorite passages.

**

TITLE: “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and erotic slapstick; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay by Martin Hardy, based on the novel by Laurence Sterne. Cinematography by Marcel Zyskind. Production design by John Paul Kelly. Costume design by Charlotte Walter.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: www.tristramshandymovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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