I tried to read the book Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, a few years ago. I was having brunch alone and wanted something to distract me while waiting for food, so I started the book. I had no idea what I was getting into, and thought it would be like Tom Jones.

The book Tristram Shandy is a first-person narrative by the title character, who has decided to write his autobiography. He intends to start with his birth and progress in a linear fashion. However, he is a master of digression. The digressions amused me at first, but after a dozen chapters or so I grew impatient and annoyed and closed the book without having gotten as far as the birth. I never finished it. Later, I learned that the point of the book was that the author was continually distracted by digressions and never actually made it past his own birth.

Now how do you make a book like that into a movie? I would have guessed it was impossible. Yet when I first learned someone had filmed Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and heard about the imaginative way in which it had been adapted, I could not wait to see the movie.  
The adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the book—a series of digressions and distractions. However, this being a movie, the digressions are often about the actors themselves, arguing over costumes or over which one is the better actor. Sometimes they are about the making of the film—how to shoot the battle scene, whether Gillian Anderson can be cast. Eventually the movie shifts from being about a movie to being about its cast members and their relationships, as well. You never know if the next scene will actually be something from the book, or an argument about costumes and shoe lifts.

Steve Coogan stars in the title role, although he also plays Tristram's father and, of course, himself. The interaction between Coogan and Rob Brydon (who plays himself as well as Tristram's uncle) provides the movie with many of its funniest scenes. Stay for the end credits to hear them argue hilariously about Al Pacino in The Godfather. I hadn't seen Coogan in anything before, and apparently some humor is based on his public reputation as well as his role as Alan Partridge, but I didn't need to know about those things to be entertained. His scene in the womb nearly had me falling out of the chair.

The cast includes many well-known British actors and actresses, or at least familiar faces; for example, if you don't recognize the name Shirley Henderson, who plays the maid Susannah, you remember her as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies. Jeremy Northam is delightful as usual as director Michael Winterbottom's stand-in, and even Stephen Fry pops in for a moment. (Sometimes I wonder if there is some unwritten rule that either Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie must appear in all British comedy films.)

I am a little ashamed to admit I haven't seen any of director Michael Winterbottom's other films, such as 24 Hour Party People, so I can't compare Tristram Shandy to his other work. (Because I liked this movie so much, I'm hoping to remedy that matter soon.) Other reviewers have compared the movie to Adaptation because they both involve movies about/within movies, but Tristram Shandy doesn't exude the smug knowledge of its oh-so-cleverness about filmmaking in the way that Adaptation does.

Tristram Shandy is all over the place, and perhaps I should have found that as annoying as I did when I attempted to read the book. However, the difference is that I knew in advance that the movie would be structured in such a chaotic way. That's why I'm telling you now: if you go into this movie expecting a traditional narrative tale, you may get discouraged. You have to throw away your expectations and sit back and wait to see what happens ... if anything.

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Glory Road and noted that it was a good movie for people who like to know how a film will end, and who gain satisfaction from watching predictable characters and situations. If you are one of those people, you should probably stay far, far away from Tristram Shandy. Satisfy your Anglophile cravings with Pride & Prejudice instead.