A Cock and Bull Story (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Make mine a Shandy
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Michael Winterbottom, making at least one film every year, has become as prolific as Woody Allen, with the same erratic approach to quality control. His determination to keep working has an almost Protestant fervour.

Now he has followed one of his shabbiest efforts, last year's experimental sex movie 9 Songs, with what might well be his funniest, an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's "unfilmable" (and, some say, unreadable) novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Winterbottom has done a period classic once before, with Jude (1996), but this is something quite different; it's not a film based on a book, but a film about a film based on a book. A Cock and Bull Story is tricksy, in a word, though nothing to make you flip your periwig over.

Its framing device is a tale of two actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who we first see joshing and needling one another on the set of a film. In the desultory scenes that follow, Coogan will play Tristram Shandy and his father Walter Shandy, while Brydon takes the part of Uncle Toby; once the director calls "cut" the pair go back to playing versions of themselves, in Coogan's case the philandering, insecure, rather whiny star-in-waiting, in Brydon's the cocksure protégé who's subtly undermining his famous friend. He entertains the cast and crew, for instance, with his impersonations of Alan Partridge, the TV personality who first made Coogan's name but now seems to hang like an albatross around his neck.

Just as Tristram himself is only born in volume IV of the book, so the film prevaricates over the question of where to start. We keep glimpsing the hero's mother (Keeley Hawes) doubled up in the agonies of labour, but then it seems that the moment of birth will instead be staged inside a giant plastic womb, with Coogan required to play the role of Tristram's foetus. Not surprisingly, he doesn't fancy it much.

Winterbottom and his writer Martin Hardy make a virtue of their limited resources and, hunting down the spirit of Tristram Shandy, they ditch the conventions of an A to B narrative in favour of riffing on the risky, bothersome nature of film-making itself. At one point, the director (Jeremy Northam), the writer (Ian Hart) and various producers have a meeting to discuss the latest hitch over finance, a situation Winterbottom adapted from his own money difficulties on A Cock and Bull Story - in the middle of filming, his budget was slashed from £6.5m to £2.8m.

This through-the-looking-glass world is pretty knowing, of course, in the same way as the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of The Larry Sanders Show or, more recently, of Ricky Gervais's Extras. While Coogan's guying of himself doesn't compare with Les Dennis's cringeworthy exposure of his inner loser, it has a confessional courage: he is being hounded by the tabloids for recent bedroom indiscretions, and he continues to flirt with an assistant (Naomie Harris) despite the fact that his wife (Kelly Macdonald) and baby are visiting him on set. He's also a monster of vanity, forever fretting over the size of his heels (he doesn't want to appear shorter than Brydon) and wondering whether he should have a chin-tuck.

What's also played for laughs (though it may be truer than we can know) is the gradual dawning that Coogan hasn't actually read Tristram Shandy. "Can you believe a book as thick as this hasn't got an index?" he asks peevishly. His laziness rebounds on him when he learns that the Hollywood star who's just signed on (Gillian Anderson, in a neat cameo) is to play the big love scene not with him but with Brydon.

The film also finds comic mileage in the rackety way the telling of a story becomes the story itself. Faced with recreating the Battle of Namur, Winterbottom makes a running joke from it, highlighting the paltriness of his resources and introducing a historical adviser (Mark Williams) whose pedantry baffles everyone. And when the young Tristram suffers a painful mishap while peeing out of a window, Coogan enters the frame to pass judgement on the child actors chosen to play his boyish self, a nod perhaps to Woody Allen revisiting scenes from his childhood in Annie Hall. Coogan emerges as a pretty good sport here, though he may not appreciate the irony that what the "Steve Coogan" character most fears actually comes to pass: his co-star and rival Brydon does upstage him.

A Cock and Bull Story is an altogether chucklesome romp, and one senses the fun Winterbottom and his team had while making it. I wonder, though, if I was alone in feeling rather undernourished by the end. Bravo for capturing the mischievous, freewheeling spirit of Tristram Shandy - as Coogan says: "It's the postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be... post about" - and for proving that no book in the world is resistant to filming once you exercise your mind and wit on it. But this doesn't engage with the problems of creation in the way other movies about moviemaking do, such as Spike Jonze's brilliant Adaptation, or even Tom DeCillo's tortuous skit on indie movies Living in Oblivion.

Winterbottom's film has cleverness, which is not the same thing as emotional or intellectual texture; aside from some acute observation on actors' competitiveness and the parlous state of the British film industry, we aren't given much to chew on. Is it unreasonable, given the book's canonical status and the director's track record, to have hoped for something more than larkiness?

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