Skipping back and forth between the 18th century and efforts of the 21st century filmmakers to shoot the classic, Tristram Shandy stays true to the manic spirit of the book, crammed with literary jokes, dark humor and an all-star cast of British comedians.

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story flits effortlessly back and forth between two stories. The first is the story of Tristram Shandy, set in the 18th century and the second, concerns a 21st century film crew making a film about Tristram Shandy.

In the first story, Tristram Shandy, an 18th century gentleman (played by Steve Coogan), narrates his life – the mishap of his naming; his unorthodox conception; his birth 'assisted’, so to speak, by Dr. Slop (Dylan Moran) with his latest scientific marvel, the forceps; the issue of his unfortunate nose; and the circumstances of his accidental circumcision.

Tristram also introduces us to those most dear – his beautiful mother Elizabeth Shandy (Keeley Hawes); her devoted maid Susannah (Shirley Henderson), the cause of his accidental circumcision; his Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon), who too sustained injuries to his unmentionable parts, during the Siege of Namur in 1695; and his father, Walter Shady (Steve Coogan), empiricist, autodidact and a habitual man prone to excesses of scientific reason.

We begin to suspect though, Tristram is not altogether a reliable narrator, given the events on which he narrate occur well before his birth.What constitute 'truth’, or even the 'truth’ of autobiography, is thoroughly destabilised in this most post-modernist tale.

We then arrive at the second story.

Acting the parts of Tristram and Walter Shandy, Steve Coogan (an icon of British comedy,) additionally plays the actor Steve Coogan, playing the person Steve Coogan, playing the person Steve Coogan, and so on"¦

Winterbottom, in this clever piece of self-reflexive cinema manages to be self-referential without self-absorption or pretension. The ground underfoot continues shifting"¦

Added to the mix, is a scripted DVD 'making of" film crew, filming the film crew filming. It just gets stickier when a real documentary film crew arrive from the BBC, to film the filmmakers.

The scripted 1st Assistant Director, Ed (Benedict Wong), could no longer figure who was working on the film and who was in the film.

Comedian Dylan Moran (Dr. Slop) sums up the confusion '"¦you had actors being actors and actors being crew. And crew being actors. The whole thing became a hall of mirrors."

Too right. When Stephen Roderick, a New York Times’ reporter, arrived on set to interview Winterbottom, he was corralled into the film. He now plays himself interviewing Steve Coogan. The line between 'reality’ and 'fiction’ is well and truly blurred.

Gillian Anderson (of X Files fame) makes an appearance, as the Widow Wadman and of course, Gillian Anderson playing Gillian Anderson, playing an actress, whose only concern is how much screen time she gets. Oh, that can’t be real"¦ Every character on the scripted film set is uncannily familiar.

There is the quietly distracted and harried Director, Mark (Jeremy Northam), who by all account morphed into the real director Winterbottom; the charming Producer, Simon (James Fleet), who has his eye firmly fixed on the financial ball; the equally mono-focused financiers; the lowest in the pecking order, the Production Runner Jennie (Naomie Harris), an aficionado of Fassbinder and Bresson, the only true film buff on set; and finally the self-obsessed and competitive actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon).

In one scene, the two main actors, in makeup chairs, obsess about Brydon’s teeth and Coogan’s nose. Then, Brydon insists he is in fact a 'featured co-lead", not just a 'performer". Coogan retaliates, demanding the busy wardrobe department build up his shoes, to reflect in height, his 'lead" status. Coogan’s very entertaining self-obsession knows no bounds.

Even when his partner Jenny (Kelly McDonald) arrives on set with their 6 month old child, he remains ridiculously self-absorbed. He continues to pursue, in a rather absent-minded way, Jennie the beautiful Production Runner. Coogan then tries to impress her by mentioning his penchant for Fassbinder, who he suspects is a film director.

But it is all in good fun. Winterbottom exhibits no malicious intent. The tone remains ever gentle and joyful. The film is erudite yet incredibly approachable.

And what is interesting is that while the scale of the storytelling and the wit is larger than life, the film looks rather ordinary. It is not terribly cinematic, especially considering it is partly a period drama. But perhaps the film’s lack of cinematic panache is what gives it an aura of approachability.

Winterbottom and writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce had originally wanted to adapt the novel as a long running soap for television but given the lack of plot, such a venture proved futile. To add mystery to misadventure, after a falling out between the director and writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce took his name off the credits.

The script is credited to 'Martin Hardy""¦It is a very post-modern ending to a post-modern tale. (Reviewed by: Tinzar Lwyn)