Back in 1767, way before there was such a thing as modernism, a British pastor named Laurence Sterne wrote what many consider to be the first post-modern novel. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is ostensibly an autobiography, but because of its numerous digressions and structural eccentricities, by the end of the book the author has failed to progress beyond his own infancy. Filled with stories-within-stories and even visual effects-a black page following a character's death-the novel has long been considered brilliant, utterly wacky and totally unfilmable.

So why not make a post-modern comedy about filming the unfilmable? That's the task director Michael Winterbottom has taken on in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and he has succeeded to an admirable degree. Like the book, the film is filled with digressions, involving either scenes from the novel or behind-the-camera looks at the production itself. Like the book, in which Tristram occasionally addresses the reader directly, the cinematic Tristram (played to hilarious effect by Steve Coogan) talks to the camera, both in and out of character. And like the book, the picture contains plenty of bawdy moments.

Tristram Shandy, the movie, thus works on a number of levels. It features some sharp, funny scenes from the book, which will be sure to whet appetites for the novel itself. But it's also a delightful "making of the movie" riff, featuring actor rivalries, angst-filled production conferences and all sorts of last-minute script changes. Central to all this is Coogan, playing an actor named "Steve Coogan," who fights with co-star Rob Brydon (very funny, especially attempting an Al Pacino impersonation) over screen time, resists the sexual temptations of a comely production assistant (Naomie Harries) and has to deal with a tabloid journalist who wants to expose his dalliance with a lap dancer.

Director Winterbottom, whose last film was the art-porno failure Nine Songs (give this guy credit for refusing to be pigeonholed), fills his latest picture with all sorts of insanity and throwaway bits. In one scene, Coogan imitates what it would look like if a hot chestnut were shoved down the front of his pants. In another, bored extras dressed up in 18th-century military garb start waving their swords while hollering "I am Spartacus!" And in yet another, shot in split-screen, Gillian Anderson hilariously agrees to accept a last-minute offer to appear in the movie.

Nonlinear and filled with all sorts of insider jokes (some based on Coogan's Brit TV persona Alan Partridge), Tristram Shandy is that best of all worlds: a continual surprise from one scene to the next. It's certainly not a mass-audience flick, but sophisticates who pay to see it will certainly feel they've gotten their money's worth.

-Lewis Beale