Movie Review: Stan & Ollie
Jon S. Baird’s pathos-laden take on Laurel and Hardy allow Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly to explore the slow-boiling lunacy that fuelled the comic legends, yet lacks a light and loving touch.
Stan & Ollie
Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan
Directed by: Jon S. Baird
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: Parental Guidance
By Jay Stone
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the gentlest of the great comedy duos — an art form that has disappeared, presumably because in this age of irony and celebrity, no one wants to a straight man — whose humor was born of confusion and exasperation. Laurel would flex his eyebrows and look around with the lost expression of someone who has suddenly found himself on stage and doesn’t know his lines. Hardy would gaze silently at the camera with the long-suffering pain of a man who has been waiting for things to go wrong. He was the fat man as victim, although at the same time he was a delicate and nimble performer not above waving the bottom of his necktie at a pretty girl or pressing his closed fingertips together in a gesture of sweet shyness. It was only when it all collapsed that he would slap his partner with his bowler hat.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the gentlest of the great comedy duos — an art form that has disappeared, presumably because in this age of irony and celebrity, no one wants to a straight man — whose humor was born of confusion and exasperation.
Not for them the raucous roughhouse of Abbott and Costello, the aggressive lunacy of Martin and Lewis, or even the affectionate non-sequiturs of Burns and Allen, although their act had something of the same rhythms of a long and trying marriage. Laurel and Hardy were the poetic outsiders trying to do right.
The new film Stan & Ollie examines the two comics in a sad light. It’s set in 1953, when their careers were fading and they undertook a tour of England as a kind of preparation for a new movie they wanted to make, a version of Robin Hood to be entitled Rob ‘Em Good. We have met them briefly in their heyday, 16 years earlier, when they were box office champions but still being underpaid by the thrifty studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Laurel (Steve Coogan), the creative spark of the outfit — he wrote the scripts and organized the finances — wants to push for more money, but Hardy (John C. Reilly) is happy with a weekly paycheque that finances his gambling habit. Both of them also seem to be energetic womanizers, a quirk that’s glossed over in the movie.
Laurel and Hardy were the poetic outsiders trying to do right.
Now they’re on tour, staying in second-rate hotels and doing their act in small rundown theatres. Their years of partnership have included some old grievances, but it’s nothing like the angry mayhem that Neil Simon so hilariously examined in The Sunshine Boys. Laurel and Hardy are still friends; the main strain on their friendship comes when their wives Ida (Nina Arinands), a Russian-born dancer with imperious air, and Lucille (Shirley Henderson, whose speaking voice sounds like someone who has swallowed a tank of helium) arrive to defend their husbands’ interests.
The tour moves from city to city under the tutelage of an impresario (Rufus Jones), who seems more interested in his new discovery, one Norman Wisdom. But despite the many setbacks — difficulties in financing the movie, Hardy’s health — they keep up their spirits, helped along by the residue of affection of mostly older fans who remember Laurel and Hardy from the old days.
It’s not much of a plot, but the film is carried on the astonishing performances — impersonations deepened into full character studies — of Coogan and Reilly. On stage, they perfectly capture the slow-boiling lunacy of the comedy; offstage, they have mined the personalities of the characters to show how their personas must have developed. Their re-creations of some of Laurel and Hardy’s routines, particularly a delightfully light-footed dance number, are wonderful.
It’s not much of a plot, but the film is carried on the astonishing performances — impersonations deepened into full character studies — of Coogan and Reilly. On stage, they perfectly capture the slow-boiling lunacy of the comedy; offstage, they have mined the personalities of the characters to show how their personas must have developed.
Still, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Screenwriter Jeff Pope, who previously worked with Coogan on Philomena, can’t discover the deeper drama or meaning, of their partnership, beyond the fact that the two men were, in all the important ways, in love.
Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) embroiders the long tour with real-life versions of some of Laurel and Hardy’s classic routines, particularly a scene where they drop a heavy trunk down a long staircase in the much the way that they kept losing a memorably awkward piano they were moving up a steep incline in The Music Box (1932). It’s a metaphor that’s as awkward as the moving job: life imitating a lost art. Stan & Ollie is unlikely to bring new fans to Laurel and Hardy; it’s aimed at those who already cherish them and want to be reminded of the sweetness and light of their glorious art.
– 30 –