Now, the problem with filming Tristram Shandy is that it's not really a novel. It's a postmodern dissection of the very possibility of writing a novel. It's so postmodern that it was written in the middle of the 18th century. Which, if you think about, is the only time, other than anytime before 2800 B.C., when you could really write a postmodern novel.
So how did Winterbottom film this unfilmable book? The only way he could: He didn't. Instead, he made a movie about making a movie about Tristram Shandy (and also a movie about making a movie about making a movie about Tristram Shandy), which makes sense, since Tristram Shandy is a book about writing a book about a guy named Tristram Shandy who's writing a book about a guy named Tristram Shandy.
The film begins with narration from Steve Coogan, playing Tristram Shandy, talking about how he will be presenting the story of his life. Self-consciously, this Shandy knows that he is in a movie. He's also kind of a jerk, and gets into an argument with an actor playing his younger self over who is better at playing Tristram Shandy. This leads to the two of them trying to outdo each other in a performance of "man who has just had the tip of his penis severed."
Then the film transforms into a film about making a film. In this film, Steve Coogan plays the part of Steve Coogan, a man who is starring in the film Tristram Shandy. Poor Mr. Coogan must deal with the extreme indignities of being a star: Sometimes they give him shoes he doesn't like, and he is not the focus of each and every shot. The horror.
It's in the role of Steve Coogan that Steve Coogan really shines. He's essentially playing himself as Alan Partridge, the character he played in the hit BBC sitcom I'm Alan Partridge. Which is to say that he plays a mid-level British celebrity who wishes he were an upper-level American celebrity. Or, in short, he plays Steve Coogan.
At least if Tristram Shandy, the film, is to be believed.
If you haven't read the book, it's sort of a first-person narrative of the life of one Tristram Shandy. Except that, as narrator of his own story, Shandy spends most of his time desperately trying to stay on topic. He can never take a straight and true course, though, as every moment in his life, or in fact, every moment prior to his birth, seems to be of such importance that it requires a several-chapter digression. So confused is the book that the end pages are bound in the middle, and Chapter 18 of Volume 9 goes missing, though it's found again somewhere in Chapter 25.
Shandy himself is not born until Chapter 21 of Volume 3, which leads him to ask, "Am I not the hero of my own life?" This, too, is the problem Steve Coogan faces as he plays the part. While the scope of the film expands around him, he's increasingly marginalized. Befitting someone who can't get his life story past his childhood, his response to this is infantile pouting.
Wanting to be the star, he's constantly annoyed with Rob Brydon, who plays Tristram's Uncle Toby, and who also plays Rob Brydon, a man playing Tristram's Uncle Toby. (Remember, it's a film-within-a-film. Within another film.) Coogan is insecure about the way Brydon's part keeps expanding. In one of many self-referential moments, the film-within-a-film gets an added set of romance scenes featuring Uncle Toby, while in the film-about-the-film, Brydon gets some real-life romance with Coogan's sometimes-girlfriend.
You could spend a lot of time counting the layers of self-reference here, as you could in the book, but ultimately the film succeeds more on charm of its actors than on the cleverness of the script. In fact, the story drags a bit in the middle as the digression-within-a-digression takes on an extended life of its own.
But the end is tremendous, and well worth waiting for. And then the end after the end is even better: As the credits roll, Coogan and Brydon sit in a theater and do competing Al Pacino impressions. Not only do they do the best Pacino impressions since Pacino's Pacino impression in Scarface; they do Pacino impressions from various points in Pacino's career, competing on the accuracy of their Godfather Pacinos versus their Scent of a Woman Pacinos. It's the best bit of double-meta Pacino ever, and it goes a long way toward making up for the film's weak middle third.