Just saw Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull story, which really lives up to that title. It’s a Charlie-Kaufman-like leap into the absurd, as we are drawn into the comical lives of the filmmakers and stars trying to make a movie of this “unfilmable” novel. Maniacally non-chronological, and full of comedian Steve Coogan’s direct-to-the-camera commentary (in which he pokes fun at his own Hollywood disaster Around the World in 80 Days), it runs along like an adrenalin rush, but ends up leaving you with a bit of a burned-out feeling… something like a sugar crash. I laughed a lot and I’m glad I saw it. But reports from my friends who assured me it would be a 2006-Top-Tenner… well, they’re much more enthusiastic than I am.

There’s a lot of talk about how versatile Michael Winterbottom is as a director, and there’s no doubt about it. But what about Frank Cottrell Boyce as a writer? Good grief, this is by the guy who wrote Millions? And Code 46? And 24 Hour Party People? And The Claim?

Steven Coogan and company deliver comedy so dry it chafes, which quickly made me think of it as The Office recontextualized on a movie set. Winterbottom manages that same brand of improv that strays just far enough into discomforting situations that there’s a sting in every scene, something that makes it funny and painful at the same time. (Has any film ever had so many penis-injury jokes?) And the emptiness and ridiculous excess of celebrity culture were all documentary-like: convincing and enough to send your eyes rolling.

Winterbottom’s clever editing recalls Michel Gondry’s fantasy-land style, but for all of the bells and whistles that surprised me along the way, it felt like watching five episodes of The Office back to back… which is probably why it’s best to watch The Office one half-hour at a time. It’s amusing enough to be engaging, but too insubstantial to really satisfy a significant investment of time.

Fun to see Stephen Fry, Kelly Macdonald, and Jeremy Northam of Gosford Park all together again. Shirley Henderson (Yes) is always a hoot, and it was good to see Naomie Harris again, who was so striking in 28 Days Later. And I was thrilled to see Elizabeth Berrington of Secrets and Lies again. Gillian Anderson’s scenes were fleeting but memorable.

Coogan does his Steve Coogan thing, which is funny some, but not all, of the time. Rob Brydon is hilarious, especially when he’s just sitting next to Coogan and getting on his nerves.

Some scenes seemed poised for hilarity and outrageous developments, but they never quite delivered. The “womb scene” for example, felt like it went on and on and just became unpleasant. The “romantic subplot” wasn’t at all satisfying. Naomie Harris’s enthusiasm for Bresson and Fassbinder must have been funny on paper, but it didn’t work for me in the film.

For me, though, the opening and closing bits between Coogan and Brydon were the funniest things in the film. I realized, as I laughed loud and hard at the end-credits sequence, that I’d much rather watch Coogan and Brydon just sit around and talk than watch this movie again. The film just seemed to dissolve into the air as soon as I left the theatre, and I don’t feel any need to go see it again. There were moments when it felt like the film might actually be about something–namely, the way that celebrity and movie-culture clash with responsibility and family life–and that all ends well, but it’s not particularly profound either.

Perhaps it would have been contradictory for a film like this to strive for profundity. But as absurdist comedy, it had this “close-but-not-quite” feeling more often than not. There are echoes of Spinal Tap, Living in Oblivion, and the Christopher Guest improv-driven comedies here. But nobody would need to persuade me to watch those again. And Tristram Shandy felt rather long and, at times, uninspired… or at least not inspired enough.

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