Stan & Ollie
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson
Rated PG for some language and for smoking
1 hr. 37 min.
The names of comedy teams that have left us rolling in the aisles trip easily off the tongue: Cheech and Chong in the 1970s, Rowan and Martin in the ’60s; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis owned the ’50s as Abbott and Costello did the ’40s. Before them all, in silent shorts through the early years of World War II, there was Laurel and Hardy, on top of the movie comedy world.
Their features, Babes in Toyland, Way Out West, Block-Heads, et al, filmed in black and white, found new life on TV, well after the duo’s heyday. To colorize them would be an abomination to purists. Otherwise, children today would spark to their effortless, accessible, visual humor. It’s too bad. Take the kids to see Stan & Ollie. They might cultivate a taste for what the world has known for over 80 years.
A warm, delightful biopic, directed by an unabashed Laurel and Hardy fan, Jon S. Baird, and written by Jeff Pope, Stan & Ollie is set in the gloaming of their careers, 1953, on a stage tour through the United Kingdom, trying to finance a comeback film. This easy-going love letter on film not only recreates their routines, but illuminates the difficulty of their partnership. Like a romantic relationship, it’s rough going at times with impediments to rise above.
Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver “Ollie” Hardy don’t imitate or do characterizations of Laurel and Hardy as much as they inhabit their looks and essences, their memorable ticks, gestures and accents, from Hardy fiddling with the bottom of his necktie to Laurel’s head-scratching and jibbering whimper. While Reilly’s resemblance to Hardy was enhanced by three hours of prosthetic work, Coogan’s hang-dog face and floppy ears make his Laurel uncanny.
As the two comedic actors begin the tour, before middling crowds, we get the backstory of why, at their apex in 1937, they almost parted ways. They survived the rift, the booze, the multiple brides and Ollie’s gambling, and found themselves in the early 1950s still delighting fans, but playing rooms unworthy of the stars they were.
The cohesion between Coogan and Reilly, their chemistry as a team, is without flaw. Reilly has a Golden Globe nomination to his credit for this role, and probably should have even more recognition. Coogan as well. The bond, the affection between the two is so undeniable, it’s as if the actors themselves had made 106 movies together. The supporting characters are just as well rendered, and deliver very subtle laughs. There’s Rufus Jones as their oily, disingenuous promoter, who entices Laurel and Hardy into a series of public service announcements to help drum up business at the box office. The guys’ current wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nida Arianda) look out for their husbands in dissimilar yet equally tough, loving ways. Lucille, with her high-pitched voice, is skeptical. Ida, a chain-smoking Russian with an accent straight out of Boris and Natasha cartoons, is blunt and to the point.
The appeal of Stan & Ollie is in the memory of having seen the old films, and how faithfully their humanity is portrayed. It’s a wonderful movie, wistful and poignant toward its conclusion, as Hardy’s health begins its decline. Most fans don’t know that Laurel moved to Santa Monica and was actually listed in the phone book. That’s how Dick Van Dyke, at the height of his own 1960s TV series, found and befriended him in his final years. With this loving tribute to them, the duo carries on. As a concierge says to Hardy, at one point, “It’s a wonder that you’re still going (as an act).” Hardy answers, “Rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet.” The same can be said for their brilliance. If film is, indeed, forever, so are Laurel and Hardy.