Stan & Ollie

2019-08-02 07:32
 
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in 'Stan & Ollie.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

It’s the early 1950s and the glory days of Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy as one of Hollywood’s biggest comedy double-acts are far, far behind them. In a desperate effort to raise money for a comeback film spoofing the legend of Robin Hood, the duo embark on a theatre tour throughout the British Isles. Whether they will actually be able to procure the investment of a big-time movie producer, though, becomes increasingly irrelevant as some rather uninspiring early ticket sales and long-buried resentments between the two men threaten to derail the tour long before it reaches its climax in London. Based on the true story.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Considering just how many damn-near unreleasable straight-to-video thrillers and Z-grade Russian animations get cinematic releases in this country, while truly interesting and worthy films from across the globe are relegated to, at best, long-delayed débuts on various streaming platforms, I suppose we should be grateful that a movie as good as Stan & Ollie has finally reached at least some of our cinemas but, really, what the hell took so long? Released in December last year in the States and less than a month later in the UK, this gem of a movie has taken a whopping eight months to reach our shores, despite being both an awards-contender and a solid audience favourite.

Yes, Laurel & Hardy and their silent-film-ready comedy stylings are well before most of our times, but they’re still fairly well-known cultural touchstones. Certainly, the combination of the spindly but dejected-looking Laurel and the rotund but graceful Ollie, donned in their instantly recognisable scamp/tramp uniforms, have remained in the public consciousness even if their actual routines haven’t.

The thing about Stan & Ollie, the film, though, is that it requires neither knowledge of the two men nor appreciation of their particular brand of cleverly constructed slapstick comedy to get plenty from this funny, huge-hearted movie about ageing, the hard-won art of comedy and the very thin line between a long-time professional partnership and genuine friendship.       

Scottish director, John S Baird, is best known for portraying the seedier, more decadent underbelly of society in the suitably named 2013 black-comedy, Filth, and the short-lived exploration of the no less decadent culture surrounding ‘70s rock and roll, Vinyl, but he manages the shift to something altogether more gentle and quietly melancholic with impressive ease. Along with beautifully capturing the period in which Stan & Ollie is set, Baird proves no less adept at imbuing the film with proper emotional clout while keeping proceeding moving at an even clip and getting the best performances imaginable out of his exceptional cast.

No less impressive is veteran British TV writer, Jeff Pope, who balances the sobering melancholy of comedy legends languishing in the twilight of their careers with the fact that even if there is something of the sad clown (minus the horrifying makeup, thank God) about Stan Laurel, these were two people dedicated to making people laugh and any film about them should reflect that. Astute, well-rounded characterisation of not just Stan and Ollie (as I will now forever think of them) but the crucial role of their wives too sits neatly with sparky, often laugh-out-loud funny dialogue and a sure handle of what made these two very different individuals such a potent comedic force.

Even if, like me, you don’t actually find Laurel & Hardy all that funny.         

I haven’t watched a ton of Laurel & Hardy, to be sure, but I would take contemporaries like the Marx Brothers over Laurel and Hardy’s particular brand of broad slapstick comedy any day. But then, of course, I would. Groucho Marx is pretty much my spirit animal. What’s important, though, in the case of this particular film, is that even if the duo’s shenanigans are more likely to elicit small titters out of you rather than hearty guffaws, it’s impossible not to come away with a great respect and appreciation for just how much thought and craft went into even the seemingly dumbest of L&H sketches. Further, even if their act doesn’t make you laugh, the enormously witty screenplay probably will – as will a number of the film’s many great performances.

What is funny – but more in the strange than "haha" kind of way – is that most of the serious comedy heavy-lifting in the film comes not from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stan and Ollie, respectively (though the former does get off some terrific one-liners) but from their on-screen wives. Shirley Henderson as Ollie’s wife, Lucille, is mousey but incredibly protective of her man, while Nina Arianda utterly steals the show as Stan’s wife, Ida, an Eastern European immigrant   who takes swift and immediate control of any room she walks in, caring little for whatever man or social custom gets in her way. Arianda, in particular, is exceptional; making the most of whatever screen time, she has to make an indelible mark on the movie and the audience both.

Of course, even with all of this in place, had the wrong actors been cast in the two leading roles or had Steve Coogan and John C O’Reilly lacked the required chemistry to do justice to one of Hollywood’s most iconic duos, all would have been for nought. Fortunately, Coogan and O’Reilly were cast, and even as they give career-best performances, entirely convincing (with the help of a prosthetic or two) as the real-life icons they’re playing, their on-screen chemistry is so good it actually manages to recapture what it must have felt to watch Laurel and Hardy in the flesh.

Stan & Ollie may not exactly stray far from well-worn biopic tropes, but that doesn’t stop it from being a film that, much like its two incredible stars, seldom puts a foot wrong. Quite why it took so long to get here, then, is anyone’s guess but it’s a pleasure to say that it was well worth the wait.


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