It has apparently been a universal conclusion of long standing that it would be impossible to turn Laurence Sterne's novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" into a film. So director Michael Winterbottom does not really try to do so in this 2005 film, "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." This is utterly appropriate, but at the same time totally confounding and while I want to say it is not as satisfying as it could be I have no idea as to what would constitute complete satisfaction under the circumstances. So just accept that going in and make your peace with it as best you can.
Your ability to enjoy the film may well be predicated on your knowledge of the novel itself, which may be limited. On the one hand the latest Amazon rankings for paper back copies of "Tristram Shandy" are #4,644 and #184,723 respectively (and dropping), but on the other hand if you are checking out the DVD then you have at least heard of it (or you are looking at the film's subtitle and making valid assumptions regarding the film's ribalry). Sterne's experimental novel (ivory tower talk for nobody knew what the hell the guy was doing; it is also called one of the first psychological novels) was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. Narrated by Shandy, it begins at the moment of his conception and continues foward with an almost endless interruptions and digression, including stories within stories and basically every other narrative device at Sterne's disposal (including unfinished stories and pages of asterisks) with scant regard for chronological order. Everything is fair game. There is a wonderful joke in the film at the novel's expense when the cast is heartened to learn that "Tristram Shandy" is number seven on the list of the greatest novels of all time put out by the "Observer," only to have their hopes dashed when they learn the list is chronological (Please continue to read this review and do not try and figure out what the first six would be and I will tell you at the end).
The most obvious cinematic reference point for "Tristram Shandy: A Cook and Bull Story" would be Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard," which also spends considerable time looking at the production from the outside. The best way to describe this movie is that it takes place on the set of the movie "Tristram Shandy," where the actor plays not only Tristram and his father, Walter, but also the actor Steve Coogan. This is true of the rest of the cast, which includes Rob Brydon, Gillian Anderson, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, and Jeremy Northam. I did not actually time things, but it could well be that the actors spend more time discussing their characters and scenes than they do in playing them.
If there is a constant in this film it would be that Coogan and Brydon keep up a running battle of unveiled but relatively civil insults from start to finish, including a final round during the closing credits. Otherwise there is no more narrative structure to the film than to the novel, which, after all, would be the whole point. Any additional attempt at description of this film is mere vanity, and all you really need to know in the end is that it does not matter than you have never read "Tristram Shandy," because only one of the actors in the film actually has, and look what good it does her.
Now, as promised, here are the results. Ahead of "Tristram Shandy" on "The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list" put out by "The Observer," in ascending order, are: (6) "Clarissa" by Samuel Richardson, (5) "Tom Jones" by Henry Fielding,(4) "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift, (3) "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe, (2) "Pilgrim's Progress" by John Bunyan," and, of course, (1) "Don Quixote" by Miguel De Cervantes. Is it not interesting than "Tom Jones" was an Oscar winning film, but "Gulliver's Travels" ended up as a semi-classic animated film and "Don Quixote" got changed into a Broadway musical that privileged Part 2 over Part 1?