At some as-yet-undefined point in the history of the 20th century, alongside the invention of the television, the atomic bomb and The Sonny and Cher Show, we began to look at our own culture with less earnestness. Or so we’ve been told. The story goes that we became culturally self conscious and our lexicon became infused with air quotes. Culture became “culture” and history became so-called history.

In our present ironic age, there’s no undoing the effects of post-modernism, so it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie
of Laurence Sterne’s The Life
and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
that would match the extraordinary impact of the book, which was published beginning
in 1759.

Sterne’s “novel” is an elaborate gag in which we barely meet the title character. Instead, there are hundreds of pages of digressions, puns and dirty jokes. Tristram Shandy is celebrated for being a post-modern novel, written “before there was even a modern to be post about,” as Steve Coogan tells an interviewer in the film. There’s no point in trying to describe who Tristram Shandy is, because he hardly exists in the book that bears his name. Even people who have begun the novel without finishing it can report that Tristram isn’t even born until many chapters into the story. Tristram can never get around to discussing his own life because there is so much explaining to do about his parents, the circumstances of his birth and the sundry other characters in the vicinity, including the great and gentle Uncle Toby, forever re-enacting the 1695 siege of Namur in which his manhood was blown off.

And you can forget about those “opinions” promised in the title.

Concerned as it was about the conventions of storytelling and the difficulties of representing reality, Sterne’s novel thus became the first and perhaps greatest post-modern novel, one that anticipated the work of 20th-century masters from Pirandello to Pynchon. No doubt because Tristram was written in the era of powdered wigs and wooden teeth, the novel has somehow avoided the hipster embrace that has ensnared the more recognizably cool, opium-smoking and syphilitic 19th-century writers. As a result, Sterne’s out-of-time masterpiece is esteemed most highly in English departments around the world, a secret society of people who instinctively smile at the words “Uncle Toby” and “Corporal Trim.”

Michael Winterbottom has already received heapings of praise merely for attempting to film this allegedly unfilmable novel. The very existence of A Cock and Bull Story is proof that the novel can be filmed. But the fact that his movie feels so familiar is further evidence of just how Sterne was so far ahead of his time. In filming such a radical novel, Winterbottom makes the obvious choice: A Cock and Bull Story becomes amovie about a foolhardy attempt to make a movie of Tristram Shandy.

Laudable as Winterbottom’s intentions are, it’s a sign of our post-modernism that we already feel as if we’re on familiar territory. We’ve all seen movies about making movies, and Winterbottom’s film opens with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon getting made up for their roles, improvising patter about size of their respective roles and the exact shade of yellow that has been applied to their teeth. Coogan, as the titular character, is the “star,” but Brydon insists that, as Uncle Toby, he is the co-star. No, Coogan replies, “You are a ‘supporting’ actor.” The bickering continues through the film and eventually spills over onto the set.

The ensuing “film” thus contains many things we’ve seen in movies like Day for Night, Living in Oblivion or 8 1/2. We see the chaos behind the scenes and meetings with producers who demand justifications for particularly egregious expenses. The misbehavior of egocentric actors is similarly exposed and lampooned: Coogan is playing “Steve Coogan” throughout, but he’s outfitted with a fictitious girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) and a not-so-fictitious propensity for embarrassing sexcapades.

There is the inevitable on-set intrigue–even with his girlfriend and their baby present, Coogan is tempted by the attentions of a gorgeous, Fassbinder-loving production assistant (Naomie Harris, from 28 Days Later). Meanwhile, his agents are frantically cleaning up one of his old messes, which involved a woman calling herself Hedda Gabler. Other top stars of English drollery are in the film, including Shirley Henderson as a ditzy maid, Stephen Fry as Parson Yorick and Ashley Jensen, in a smaller role as a troubleshooting agent.

As familiar as much of the material is, it’s often done quite well. Coogan is irritating as ever in a role that requires him to play “himself” (indeed, in keeping with the book, Coogan only appears as the title character for about five minutes). Elsewhere, Fry provides welcome literary context for the uninitiated, and veteran comic performer Rob Brydon gets well-deserved exposure as Uncle Toby. The film, which Winterbottom co-wrote with Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie, Millions), is generally so light on its feet that it feels ungracious to voice complaints or offer suggestions. Still, it’s undeniably true that, as diverting as A Cock and Bull Story is, the film does not match the novel in invention or fresh jokes.

The chief disappointment is that Winterbottom doesn’t find cinematic corollaries to Sterne’s ongoing interest in the novel as a physical object in our hands. To be sure, Winterbottom punctuates a joke with a blacked-out screen at one point, but otherwise much of the meta-movie content of the film feels familiar.

As a typical example of the book’s gags, when Uncle Toby falls in love with a woman with the delightfully redolent name of Widow Wadman, Sterne is at a loss to describe her charms. Instead, he leaves a blank page and invites us to sketch our own picture of the luscious Widow Wadman–“as unlike your wife as your conscience will permit you,” the author adds with a leer. (One imagines that somewhere in this world there is a book collector who has a definitive cache of 250 years worth of semi-pornographic renderings of the “concupiscible” Widow Wadman.)

I’ve no idea what a cinematic equivalent of this particular gag would be, but in Winterbottom’s film, the Widow Wadman is originally cut from the story, before the producers change their mind and enlarge the phallically-challenged Uncle Toby’s part to include his “love affair” with the widow. We then see the scene in which Gillian Anderson, playing “Gillian Anderson,” is cast in the film. It’s fine as far as it goes, but like the rest of the film, it doesn’t quite match the effects achieved by Sterne in his one-shot masterpiece.

Michael Winterbottom’s films fail more often than not (including, most recently, his erotic two-hander 9 Songs), but through sheer persistence, he’s managed to become one of the most prolific and interesting filmmakers working today. His biggest commercial hit is probably 24 Hour Party People, but his films have also included two Thomas Hardy adaptations and films about conflicts in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.

He’s already got another film headed our way, one that couldn’t be more removed from the 18th-century English manor. In it, he tackles a subject that seems to have eluded major American filmmakers. The film made a splash at last month’s Berlin Film Festival,
and the title says it all: The Road to Guantánamo. This alone might be an additional reason to support Michael Winterbottom’s entertaining–if somewhat underachieving–adaptation of an unfilmable 18th-century novel.