Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story takes forever to get going, loses its plot thread a half-dozen times, hopelessly scrambles the telling of its hero’s birth, and gets sidetracked down every randy, bizarre digression that happens along the briarpath. In other words, it’s a fine adaptation of its source. Easily the most fun book entombed on college reading lists, Laurence Sterne’s 1760 novel precedes the literary gamesmanship of Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace by more than two centuries. Its eccentric British humor and learned tomfoolery still seem fresh: if he’d been born a few hundred years later, the author might’ve manned a desk at the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Michael Winterbottom’s shambling film version honors the book’s conversational wit, encyclopedic curiosity and digressive sense of play without creating one-to-one analogues for its stylistic tics. As in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another filmed “unfilmable,” Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce use a movie-within-a-movie framework to accommodate the book’s narrative games. They subordinate the fictional memoir’s gangly plot to the making of the film—a logistical nightmare of cheapo battle scenes, giant latex wombs and escalating one-upmanship between the nominal stars, British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
As a post-grad stunt, the “adaptation” that never quite gels is often more impressive than laugh-out-loud funny: its brightest moments are the ones with the most low-comic daring, like Coogan’s rubber-legged St. Vitus dance with a hot chestnut down his trousers. But A Cock & Bull Story has a keen sense of its own folly. The only thing loonier than filming actors in periwigs and tri-cornered hats—and Winterbottom cranks up the Barry Lyndon music in an epic show of unworthiness—is trying to film a 245-year-old stream-of-consciousness novel whose narrative threads unravel faster than celebrity marriages. Ingeniously fulfilling the assignment by ducking it, the movie of Tristram Shandy kids the presumption of period pieces and literary adaptations while preserving the integrity of one of English literature’s towering works. Especially the dick jokes.