It might appear advantageous to walk into “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” having conquered the basics of Laurence Sterne’s novel, upon which the film is based. With the film’s dense, nonlinear structure and heady subject matter, it might seem comforting to have some support.

Morgan Morel
“Time out rules!” (Courtesy of Newmarket)

But as luck would have it, that won’t be necessary, because no one in this film seems to have read it either. Or at least, no one seems to know what the book was about. In the film’s context, that’s neither here nor there.

In an effortless blend of satire, documentary and all-around messiness, “Tristram Shandy” is a successful look at one team’s attempt to adapt the novel for the screen. Essentially, in all its postmodern glory, this is a movie about making a movie.

Inconsistency is an intentional decision here: a channeling of Sterne’s wildly digressive novel in which the main character’s reflections on his life culminate with his birth.

Steve Coogan (“24 Hour Party People”) is Tristram, the lead actor. Or at least that’s what we assume, because Rob Brydon’s (also “24 Hour Party People”) supporting role shouldn’t be as important as a title character. Right?

Paralleling the worries of Shandy with the difficulties of life on a movie set, Coogan utilizes his fluent smarm and confidence to fine effect. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, Coogan and Brydon sit together in makeup, discussing the appropriate yellowness of teeth (“Custard sunset?”) in a period film, all while Coogan is threatened by Brydon’s attempts to imagine usurping a lead role.

Coogan serves up a tightrope act of a performance, balancing a variety of engaging roles while still worrying about whether or not he’ll get the lead credit. Brydon’s happy-go-lucky kindness acts as a great foil to Coogan’s smart-ass.

It’s also uproarious to see Coogan and Brydon play off each other during the latter’s hilarious displays of anger.

Tristram Shandy introduces himself and the story with effrontery and arrogance. He calls his life a “cock and bull” story – in every aspect of the phrase. The film smartly allows the audience to recognize the irony and patent disillusions involved in the film business.

The worry of overcomplicating one’s own life resonate in the film with sincerity and irony. Fears of human connection, sexual inadequacy and the desire to feel accomplished are just a few of the prime concerns of “Shandy.” Somehow, some way, these themes find a proper context within the convoluted core of the film.

“Shandy” succeeds because of its ability to blend several genres together and provide some fantastic performances with a touch of wit and style.

With the controlled yet erratic direction of Michael Winterbottom (“Code 46”) and a sharp, observant script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Millions”), the film covers a lot of ground without ever actually getting lost.

And it’s only 91 minutes at that.

When Coogan looks to the screen early on as Tristram, he quotes Groucho Marx: “When making a story about yourself, there’s no room for messing around. Why not? People do it all the time.” He’s talking about the film, and it works on more than one level.

Any resemblance to “This is Spinal Tap,” “Adaptation” or even “Day For Night” is expected but irrelevant in the end. “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” is a unique cinematic experience all its own: a mess of magnificent proportions. Here, sincerity is found in uncertainty, and meaning is obtained through meandering.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story
At the Michigan Theater
Newmarket

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