John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan shine in a Laurel & Hardy biopic that plays like a wonderful Laurel & Hardy movie.
By William Bibbiani
This is an early review. Stan & Ollie opens in a limited version on December 28.
It is difficult to articulate how successful and famous the comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were in their heyday. Together, Laurel and Hardy starred in more than 100 films, many of them blockbusters. His cartoony and insignificant characters, with the resounding Hardy constantly on the receiving end of Laurel's unconscious gags, fit into virtually any situation. They were master comedians working at the top of their game.
But all the stars must fall. Jon S. Baird's new biopic, Stan & Ollie finds the two legends at the end of their careers, is still as fun as ever but struggling to find an audience now that the comedy has progressed, and acts as Abbott & Costello rule the world of entertainment. It sounds melancholy, and sometimes it is, but Baird has nothing but warmth in his heart for these two masters of comedy. The movie is a Hollywood biopic that is as fun and charming as the one you'll always find.
Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel, who in 1953 re-teamed with Oliver Hardy, played by John C. Reilly, for a European comedy tour. Along the way, they plan to rekindle their comic abilities after a failure, which involves an unbearable negotiation of contracts and an unfortunate movie with an elephant. They are also trying to develop a new movie called Rob 'Em Good, a parody of Robin Hood that they plan to shoot at the end of their live shows … if they get that far.
Along the way, Laurel and Hardy struggle to find their old chemistry, hold grudges against old grudges and face the real possibility that their careers are simply over, like it or not. The show should always continue, but maybe, just maybe, I should continue without them.
Coogan and Reilly are absolute perfection like Laurel & Hardy, capturing all their iconic gestures without ever resorting to superficial imitation. Laurel and Hardy are accomplished professionals, always ready to entertain, even in causal encounters. They simply like to make people laugh and, therefore, recreate in a casual way some of their most famous routines when passing, on the street or in the waiting rooms, to get an increase in the people around them.
It's an intelligent and completely organic way to make this Laurel & Hardy biopic like a true Laurel & Hardy movie. Baird, working from a nuanced and witty script by Jeff Pope, lets the audience jump out from behind the curtain. We watched the program and then observed the messy emotional reality that involved making those classic routines work in the first place. And everything we learn makes us love them more.
Stan and Ollie wisely use the thin and almost imperceptible difference between the adorable facades of the comedians and their real, painful and personal disputes to drive the film. Stan Laurel is the duo's entrepreneur, the writer and director who is always pushing the act of comedy. Oliver Hardy follows the pace and makes his contributions, but is more concerned about his life, his wife and their relationship. At its lowest point, when Laurel screams desperately "We loved you!" To his best friend, Hardy responds: "You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me."
"And that?" Laurel responds, apparently without seeing any difference. The silence in the room is deafening and, nevertheless, none of the assistants to the party in the bottom seems to know if the pair is really fighting, or in the middle of another "bit".
Stan & Ollie is a movie about people who get lost in their characters, but it is also an incredibly tender romance between these two men, as well as their wives. Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting) plays Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda (Goliath) plays Ida Laurel, whose personalities are as diametrically opposed as those of their husbands, and who seem to have developed their own comedy dyad. "You're the epitome of Hollywood," Lucille tells Ida, a former dancer with an ego problem. "Do not pity me!" Ida replies, laughing again as much as Coogan or Reilly. Henderson and Arianda are delights of stealing scenes in a movie about other characters who became famous for stealing scenes. (And if there is justice in the world, each of them will be remembered in the awards season).