However, here we have a genuinely British product, with the cast nearly all from British television and a British director (Michael Winterbottom) who is known for his diverse and risky output, including the maligned (if bold) 9 Songs and the much better-received 24 Hour Party People. The subject of the latter, Tony Wilson, appears here briefly in perhaps the most self-referential moment of the whole film, interviewing the man who played him in 24HPP and the star of this film (Steve Coogan) for a purported DVD feature for an adaptation of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the (fictitious) making of which is the subject of this film... confused yet?
Coogan and Rob Brydon (best known as the perpetually optimistic but perennially unfortunate taxi driver Keith Barret in Marion and Geoff) form one of the best comedy partnerships seen for a long time, each parodying themselves as they take on the principal roles in an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's infamously un-filmable book – a Sixteenth Century novel about the writing of a novel (as one of the characters comments, "a post-modern novel written before there was any modernism to be postal about"). Coogan takes both the title role of the narrator Tristram Shandy, and that of his father Walter ("due to the strong family resemblance, it only makes sense that I portray my father also"), revealing the arrogance of the character, mirrored in the 'real' Coogan we meet later.
If the thought of seeing a film about a novel that you have probably never read is rather off-putting, then the remainder of the film should nevertheless appeal: we go behind the camera into the world of creating a film. Discussions on the screenplay, attempts by the director (Jeremy Northam) to raise enough funding to complete the film by bringing in the obligatory big Hollywood star (here Gillian Anderson), screening daily rushes, calls for costuming at unearthly hours, and, most of all, the battle of egos between the two stars, are all topics explored. There is a theme of film as art versus entertainment –gloriously encapsulated by Naomie Harris as Coogan's personal assistant in a monologue on the merits of obscure German cinema over the output of Hollywood – and the novel's point that life cannot be compartmentalised into easily digestible chunks is explained in detail by Stephen Fry in his inevitable cameo appearance.
The main enjoyment comes from watching Coogan parodying himself. He is shown as arrogant, insecure, two-faced and selfish; his sly attempts to increase his role on screen, which backfire as they only serve to give Brydon a more dominant part in the film, are a product of his failure to even read the novel which he is filming. Even the presence of his girlfriend (played by Kelly Macdonald) and baby daughter is not sufficient to prevent him acting on amorous thoughts for other women on set. He makes the costume woman cry with his unreasonable demands and never misses an opportunity to insult someone in a brave performance of outstanding self-parody.
While A Cock and Bull Story is not completely satisfying as either an adaptation of the novel or as a treatise on the difficulties of film-making (in that respect, it is inferior to the similarly-themed Charlie Kaufman-penned film of 2002, Adaptation), it is still likely to be the best British comedy of 2006. It was nearly not made due to difficulties in funding, and the absurdly long opening production company credits reveal how much effort
Winterbottom went to in order to get this made – if there's any justice, it will be rewarded with due success. Whether you want to come along and play spot the cameo by the British comedy actor (Dylan Moran of Black Books, David Walliams of Little Britain, Mark Williams of The Fast Show and Ashley Jensen of Extras all make small but important contributions) or whether you just want to watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing Al Pacino impressions over the final credits, this should not be missed.