Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) and Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) were at their Hollywood comic peak in 1937. The years since, though, with money problems and failing health, have taken a toll on iconic comic duo. It is 1953 and they agree to tour England and make a comeback to movies in “Stan & Ollie.”
I am not familiar with director Jon S. Baird, so this is the first time I am seeing his work – his career background is primarily in television. So, I was not expecting to see a warm, sensitive homage to two icons of comedy with two superb performances by the titular pair’s alter egos, Reilly and Coogan.
Between the marvelous makeup and the dead on performances, I felt like I was watching the real people in the flesh. The perfect re-creation of their old skits, pratfalls and all, brings the old stars to life. Both actors capture all the gestures familiar to us older folk, solidifying their convincing embodiment of the beloved comics and all their antics.
John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are great as Stan and Ollie, and they are well supported by Shirley Henderson, as Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arlanda, as Ida Kiteva Laurel, as their loyal and loving wives, and fierce protectors of their husbands. Danny Huston, as producer Hal Roach, has a notable cameo as the man who, to some, split up Laurel and Hardy.
For a couple of hours, I felt like I was watching Stan and Ollie in the flesh. I give it a B+.
In 1937, Laurel and Hardy were the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, but Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) was all too aware they were not being paid their worth by producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the man who had paired them. But when Stan spoke up, Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) resisted upsetting the status quo and when Laurel's contract expired ahead of Hardy's, Roach paired Oliver with Harry Langdon in 1939's "Zenobia," causing a rift between the two men. As their careers wound down, Laurel arranged a comeback of sorts, a 1953 theater tour of the U.K. during which they faced their pasts as "Stan & Ollie."
Last year brought us "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," the real life story of Hollywood star Gloria Grahame's waning years spent in the U.K. romancing a younger man. Now along comes "Stan & Ollie," the British/American comedy duo hoping to rekindle earlier success and their relationship in Newcastle. Viewing their partnership through the lens of time, screenwriter Jeff Pope ("Philomena") could be looking at a look term romance here, one where each individual had different ideas of just what their relationship was.
Director Jon S. Baird, whose prior film, 2013's "Filth," couldn't be more different in style or content, opens with an eye catching tracking shot through the studio lot onto the "Way Out West" soundstage. Its two stars differences are immediately apparent, Ollie complaining about his leeching ex wives before happily and unironically announcing his engagement to script girl Lucille (Shirley Henderson), Stan confronting Roach about pay disparity with the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Once the cameras begin to roll however, the two men are in glorious, self-choreographed sync.
Sixteen years later, the aging comics arrive in England, the optimistic Oliver going with the flow, the more business-minded Stan sweating as his expectations are continually undermined. Their lodgings are in a shabby inn where they are expected to lug their own luggage up the stairs. Newcastle is far from London, but they are not even booked into its best theater and even there, attendance is meager. Then they are asked to do the type of public appearances that would once have been far beneath them, but the effect is startling - attendance picks up and the tour is extended, including a stop in London. Unfortunately, their resurgence brings old hurts back to the surface, Stan tossing out Ollie's betrayal with 'the elephant movie,' Ollie throwing back that Stan loved 'Laurel and Hardy' but not him. Stan would end up partnering with another comic on stage, the man's crass comedy a shock to his system, while the dying Oliver kept dreaming of the Robin Hood movie they'd never made together.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are simply astonishing in these roles, Coogan capturing Laurel's meek, innocent befuddlement while Reilly counters with Hardy's steam-venting exasperation and clipped diction. The two reenact many of the duo's most well known bits, their physical performances also flawless. The opposing natures of their professional act are reflected in their personal lives but it is Hardy who is the more innocent, easy going one. Both actors are given fine support, Scottish actress Henderson lovely and grounding as Lucille, Hardy's most supportive wife who cared for him until his death, American actress Nina Arianda portraying Laurel's last wife, the theatrical and self-promoting Russian Ida Kitaeva. Pope and Baird have smartly given them their own parallel relationship story, Lucille bristling at Ida's braggadocio until being in the trenches of common cause creates a truce, Ida taking Lucille's hand as they watch their husbands' London triumph.
"Stan & Ollie" relates the later days of Hollywood legends as a small, bittersweet bromance. It's a melancholy and affecting tribute featuring two great performances.
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