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"Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"

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Sterne's novel, as Tristram Shandy himself (Steve Coogan, also playing Steve Coogan) points out, was "a postmodern novel before there was anything modern to be post about." Dense, impious and riddled with purposefully long-winded digressions, it isn't something easily reconstructed into a two-hour after-dinner treat.

Winterbottom is game, however, and what he's constructed is part "Masterpiece Theatre," part "24 Hour Party People" and part "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The period film portions are both real and part of an imaginary director's movie; they are shown as they would be in any other movie, and we see them being filmed by the imaginary director's crew. It's a lot easier to watch than to explain. To regurgitate the plot is beside the point.

The titular character narrates the action in the novel but isn't even born until well past the middle, so Coogan serves mostly as a narrator of his own conception and birth. Jokes in the novel become inside jokes in the film. The death scene of one character in the book was infamously rendered by Sterne with a solid black page. "I don't know how audiences are going to respond to a black screen," says one of the moviemaking crew in the movie. For emphasis, we are shown a black screen.

"Tristram Shandy" the movie is a great statement on the adaptation, and a fantastically entertaining movie, even if it isn't "Tristram Shandy" the book. By the end, the film has forgotten the book altogether, spinning off into a mix of melodrama and situational comedy. Winterbottom has had at least one singular revelation in adapting this particular old classic: Do whatever you want, because no one's ever read it anyway. S



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