Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan) and Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon) are the two stars of a new British film that adapts Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, but as with all such projects, the production is fraught with mishap. Coogan is irritated by his co-star, and as they sit in the makeup chairs Brydon prattles on, not helping Coogan's mood as he denigrates his claim to top billing. As for the film, the novel is supposed to be impossible to adapt, a tale of the eighteenth century whose hero spends his tale endlessly distracted - not unlike those making the film...
The publicity for A Cock and Bull Story emphasised that this was not only a film of an unfilmable book, but viewers were rest assured this was to be no dry literary presentation, as we would get to see the stars strutting their comedy stuff as well. And true enough, after about half an hour of taking bits and pieces from the novel, the action loses interest and opts to concentrate on the behind the scenes shenanigans in a This is Spinal Tap mockumentary kind of way, although it never makes it clear whether we're watching a fly on the wall documentary or not.
That first half hour is probably the best part, as it flits around, digressing and returning to variations of the same scenes. That's not to say it's satisfying as by its very nature it's more likely to frustrate you than not, but as Tristram (played by Coogan) and his father Walter (also Coogan) attempt to make sense of a story too sprawling to be pinned down, there's a spirited feel to the proceedings. There's even a touch of the famous sixties version of Tom Jones to it all, a jovial post modernist romp featuring a host of recognisable faces - but then it all goes wrong.
Frank Cotterill Boyce originally scripted, but had his name taken off the credits supposedly after a disagreement with director Michael Winterbottom, and the film within the film is no less troubled. In a wearisomely self-indulgent move, we are now expected to be caught up in the arch business of Coogan playing Coogan as a vain and insecure star. The solution to that much vaunted unfilmability is to make up a different story and shoot that instead, but there are precious few laughs to be had when it ranges between the self-consciously ridiculous, as Coogan is placed in a giant model womb, or straight-faced farce.
Themes do arise from the morass, as just as Brydon's character Uncle Toby has been injured in his manhood, a subject he studiously avoids, Coogan is thought to be impotent with his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly MacDonald) since she has had their baby, but there is rumour of an upcoming scandal that might put paid to that, a thread that is completely forgotten about in favour of an attraction between Coogan and pretentious assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris) that doesn't go anywhere either. Fortunately Stephen Fry is one of the well known celebs to put us right on the message of the novel, and one presumes the film, but chiefly the sense one draws from the whole thing is a boredom with its relentless games playing. It's a pity to see so much talent fall so resoundingly flat.