|Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in STAN & OLLIE. (copyright 2019)|
There’s a delightful movie about a world-famous duo that opened this season starring John C. Reilly, but it’s not HOLMES & WATSON, the dreadful film he made with Will Ferrell. It’s a film concerning another famous duo – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the film world’s greatest comedy team – and it’s called STAN & OLLIE. In this one, that opened in New York and Los Angeles over Christmas, and opens nationwide this weekend, Reilly costars with Steve Coogan and the movie bio is easily one of the best films of 2018. That’s saying a lot, considering all the Oscar bait that was released around it. This film should be in consideration too, especially Reilly’s stellar turn as the troubled Ollie.
Everyone knows Laurel & Hardy, but few know much about their backstory. After acting as individuals for almost a decade in the infancy of film in Hollywood, Laurel and Hardy paired up for filmmaker Hal Roach in 1927 and soon became international film stars. Their comedy style – one that mixed broad physicality with sophisticated gags – made them beloved characters. They quickly became icons, and even their bowler hats and “The Cuckoo” theme music became known the world over too.
Their schtick was built on the contrast in size and temperament between the two men. Laurel played the clumsy naïf, a man-child character walking through life, guilelessly causing chaos. Hardy played a pompous and proud man, large and in charge, one who always blamed his friend for any misfortunes as he struggled to maintain his dignity throughout all the craziness. That dynamic was adored by audiences, aged six to sixty, and their popularity even grew larger when ‘talkies” took over cinema. Laurel’s soft, hesitant vocal tones fit perfectly with his timid character, while Hardy’s rumbling delivery ideally melded with that of the blowhard he was playing.
For his screenplay of STAN & OLLIE, writer Jeff Pope has wisely chosen to not focus on the story of their rise to fame but rather, their waning years in the early 1950s. Specifically, his script highlights the team’s comedy tour through Britain in 1953 which was intended to raise their profile and conjure up funding for a big comeback film, but instead, the tour served as the duo’s swan song. Not only did the producers back at home balk at the aging comic’s dream of a big budgeted return, but the obese and hard-living Hardy’s failing health put the final nail in the coffin when he realized he couldn’t perform the way he used to and was forced to retire.
STAN & OLLIE both glorifies their comedy and eulogizes the end of their vaulted careers. The affection for the two men is evident in every moment, but it leans hard on the drama and the pathos of their declining showbiz stock too. Yet, through it all, the good and the bad, Laurel and Hardy remained good friends. They knew each other better than anyone, and theirs was a true love story.
Often in biopics, the filmmakers fail to get a handle on what made artists so unequivocally brilliant. Despite an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1992, Robert Downey Jr.’s turn in CHAPLIN spent more time focusing on his peccadilloes than his talents. STAN & OLLIE never suffers from that problem because the film goes out of its way to ensure we in the audience understand precisely what made this comedy team the greatest so tremendous. Many of their classic gags are painstakingly recreated here, including the intricate skit where they keep missing each other’s entrances and exits on a simple train station backdrop on the stage. It’s an incredible piece of comedy, dependent upon pinpoint timing. Laurel and Hardy turned that wordless skit into art, and Coogan and Reilly recreate it impeccably here.
And even though STAN & OLLIE serves as a loving valentine to the two men, their work, and their friendship, the film also slyly slams the vagaries and slipperiness of the town that gave them their fame. By sixty, Tinsel Town considered the legends to be “old hat,” a yesterday’s news. The duo’s sophisticated physical style was being replaced by something cruder and more obvious on film, the broader and brasher stylings of over-the-top comics like Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis.
And even though the film shows Laurel trying to come up with new bits to compete in the modern marketplace, as he was the author and choreographer of all their bits, it shows how futile his efforts are. The audiences need reintroducing to the boys, and Laurel & Hardy start doing local advertisements to help build interest in their tour. It’s quite a comedown for them and Laurel, in particular, seems wholly stymied having to pander. In moments like these, the film even becomes a timely commentary on ageism. Granted, that prejudice has always plagued the entertainment industry, but now it’s overwhelming all kinds of businesses across the globe and in epidemic proportions.
Both lead actors do incredible work throughout the film, recreating the comedy of the duo, but also digging deep to find the real hurt inside these aging men. Coogan is an expert comic and has always been a razor-sharp impressionist, so it’s no surprise that he nails every single element of Laurel’s voice, gait, and bearing. The Brit also has built up quite a reputation of late as a superb dramatic actor too, as evidenced in his Oscar-nominated film PHILOMENA, and he ensures that melancholy is always just under the surface of his Laurel. Watch the way Coogan hesitates before delivering his lines as he faces one indignity after another while trying to cajole producers to believe in the twosome. It slyly matches the same cadence he uses to comic effect in the skits.
O’Reilly, not known for being a mimic, impersonates all of Hardy’s qualities as if he is the comic too. The lilt in the voice, the side-eyed glances, the heaving up and down of his gait, they’re all here and done with uncanny expertise. Even though Reilly’s buried under a fat suit and brilliant makeup that turns him into a dead ringer for Ollie, in never inhibits his performance. Every emotion, subtle or broad comes through, and if the film were released earlier in the year, Reilly likely could’ve been a frontrunner for Best Actor. (He was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination, but will probably miss the short list when the Oscar nods are called as the late debut might mean not enough Academy members have seen it.)
What’s especially fascinating about Reilly’s performance is how he makes Ollie so different from his screen persona. In his personal life, Hardy was as sweet as his onscreen character was bellicose. And who knew that the man was such a romantic? The affection he showers on his wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) is one of the film’s revelatory delights, and the poignancy with which they deal with his health issues will tug mightily on your heartstrings.
One of the nicest surprises in STAN & OLLIE is how the secondary characters shine through as well. This could have easily been a two-hander, but the film has greater scope and ambition than that. Instead, the wives come through better than some of the actresses reaping Best Supporting Actress nominations. Henderson gives a gracious, warm and witty performance showing all the sides she had to be to her husband – lover, confidante, and caretaker. Nina Arianda shines too as Ida, Stan’s tart-tongued Russian wife. She gets almost as many funny quips as the two leads do. And Rufus Jones should win some sort of award for essaying such a scoundrel of an agent. His Bernard Delfont is so oily it’s amazing he doesn’t slide right off the screen. Jones makes his lies, half-truths, and broken promises a hoot every second he’s onscreen.
Director Jon S. Baird gets the best from his cast, including Danny Huston as a pompous Roach, and delivers a period piece that can stand up to any such film this year. The fact that he did it with such a modestly budgeted film speaks volumes to his talent, as does his control in keeping the film from becoming maudlin. Even when Ollie starts falling down and sweating profusely from his weight problems in the final act of the film, Baird prevents it from becoming caricatured.
And while the award season is in full-throttle, here’s hoping that Academy members do manage to put this screener into their DVD players and recognize Laurie Rose’s rich photography, John Paul Kelly’s detailed production design, and Guy Speranza’s pin-point costumes. This sleeper should at least snag one Oscar nomination – that for Mark Coulier’s makeup. Indeed, he is already on the short-list for his astonishing prosthetics makeup on display and stands a real chance of winning.
So many movie biographies tend to tear down their subjects, a feat this one manages to avoid. Sure, it shows the men, flaws and all, but it never loses sight of their greatness and the type of people it takes to be such artists. Even better, it shines a proper spotlight on these two giants that deserve to always be held in the same esteem as Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. STAN & OLLIE salutes these two comics as the treasures they were and should remain no matter how many decades have past from their heyday. This small and intimate little film is a treasure itself, one that should be a must-see for the moviegoing public this January. an>