It's official: Michael Winterbottom makes the best cinematic whatchamacallits around. The maverick moving target responsible for genre-hopping excursions like 24 Hour Party People and Code 46, Winterbottom has turned his attention to adapting Laurence Sterne's "unfilmable" 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The marvelous movie he's come up with is equal parts period comedy, making-of mockumentary and commentary track come to life. It's also vibrant evidence that "unfilmable" books inspire the wittiest big-screen head trips. (See Lunch, Naked.)
Star Steve Coogan, resuming the direct address that served him so well in Party People, turns his perpetual near-scowl to the camera and talks us through the madcap events of the book, a satirical recounting of the messy birth of a broken-nosed nonentity named Tristram Shandy. Coogan is simultaneously lead character and self-protective star, continually interrupting the proceedings to critique his fellow actors' performances and bemoan the dodgier casting choices. (The kid actor portraying the young Tristram, he informs us, was the best of a bad bunch.)
But even that winkingly layered approach isn't meta enough for Winterbottom and perennial writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (here writing as Martin Hardy), who soon zoom out to find a crew of modern-day film professionals hard at work bringing the Shandy story to life. For the megalomaniacal Coogan, "hard work" means engaging in some clumsy manipulation to retain more screen time (and a slightly taller appearance) than fellow actor Rob Brydon who is either a supporting player or a co-lead, depending on who's doing the talking. There are innumerable skirmishes both personal and professional, including an encounter with a self-styled military expert determined to endow the film's low-budget battle scenes with the utmost historical accuracy. Gillian Anderson, welcomed into the Shandy fold at the last minute, gets to play a dementedly chipper version of her offscreen self in a sidesplitting cameo.
A slightly serious note is sounded as the tales overlap, with Coogan neglecting his infant child the same way Shandy's male relatives chose to discuss the Battle of Nemours and new advances in forcep technology while he was wriggling his way out of his mother's womb. But mostly, Winterbottom's film exists to show Coogan taking the piss out of himself, furthering his self-flagellating riff from Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (with Brydon replacing Alfred Molina as his sparring partner). The Coffee connection isn't the only familiar element of the film, which betrays debts to everybody from Fellini to Christopher Guest. But consider such precedents touchstones, not millstones: As an unhinged show-biz sendup, Shandy never fails to surprise and delight on its own constantly shifting terms. It's the absolute best at doing whatever it is it does.