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‘Tristram Shandy’ is orchestrated chaos

Director Winterbottom captures the playful spirit of Laurence Sterne’s book
/ Source: The Associated Press

Of course, if anyone were cocky and bullheaded enough to film Laurence Sterne’s supposedly unfilmable literary romp “Tristram Shandy,” it would have to be Michael Winterbottom.

Then again, the filmmaker behind such gems as “24 Hour Party People,” a portrait of Britain’s 1980s music scene, and “In This World,” a docudrama about Afghans seeking refuge in London, hasn’t really filmed “Tristram Shandy.”

Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” cleverly places the 18th century tale in a contemporary framework as a movie crew sets out to shoot an adaptation of Sterne’s rollicking, unconventional novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.”

The approach allows Winterbottom and screenwriter Martin Hardy to capture the playful spirit of Sterne’s novel, which is rife with unusual structural devices, including stories within stories, typographical whimsies such as blacked-out pages and twists of narration as main character Tristram comments omnisciently about events that happened before he was born.

The film’s format also lends itself to a lot of self-indulgence by Winterbottom and friends, much of it amusing or at least interesting, much of it not so engaging, and a bit of it downright annoying.

Anticipating the free-form construction of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake” nearly two centuries later, Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” presents a rambling narrative packed with asides from his rascally, not thoroughly credible title character.

Sterne’s novel packs plenty of verbiage but comparatively little plot as narrator Tristram prattles on about his relations and the circle of people living around his family’s ancestral home in Yorkshire.

The movie follows that pattern, casting Steve Coogan, star of “24 Hour Party People,” as Tristram, Tristram’s father and as a fictionalized version of Steve Coogan, the actor starring in a costume-pageant film version of “Tristram Shandy.”

The film toys with the petulant persona Coogan has copped in previous gigs, including a segment of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” As the prima donna actor playing Tristram, Coogan frets that the shoes of fellow performer Rob Brydon, playing Tristram’s lovable uncle, might elevate his co-star to an inappropriate stature.

Coogan later feels his star status diminishing as the filmmakers make a last-minute decision to restore a love story involving Brydon’s character to the script, enlisting Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” to play Brydon’s lady love.

Along with Coogan, Brydon and Anderson, the cast includes Naomie Harris as a production runner who catches Coogan’s eye, Kelly Macdonald as Coogan’s girlfriend, Jeremy Northam as the film’s director and Winterbottom regular Shirley Henderson.

To call the film a mess is a compliment, its carefully orchestrated chaos a fitting reflection of Sterne’s prose. Winterbottom crafts wry observations on the nature and value of storytelling, and many of the exchanges — particularly sequences between Coogan and Brydon — are hilarious.

But the film often falters in nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor about celebrity and the process of filmmaking. Some of the gags connect, but the film sometimes leaves the impression that Winterbottom’s cock-and-bull story is just that, little more than an elaborate inside joke by a filmmaker out to amuse mainly himself.