Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's brilliant buffooneryby James Robins
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.
Stan & Ollie, a generous and sweet film, explores this twilight of the comic masters. It follows the duo’s tour of post-war Britain where they grin and bear it as people greet them with such compliments as, “It’s amazing you two are still going strong! Still using the same old material!”
As the shows wear on, that friendship – a love story, really – threatens to fracture and falter. What is never in doubt, though, is Steve Coogan and John C Reilly’s brilliance in their portrayals of the pair. Both actors are lifelong devotees, and it shows. Near the beginning, they run through the famed (and silly) dance routine from 1937’s Way Out West and it’s a note-perfect recreation, right down to the mistakes. Reilly knows that Hardy was always the prankster and the more expressive performer. At that size, how could he not be? Coogan, meanwhile, brings a thoughtfulness to the partnership, reminding that Laurel was the brains of the operation, his mind a buzzing switchboard of ideas and riffs.
Ideal as these performances are, the film falls flat for a while. To those with only a passing familiarity with Laurel and Hardy’s material and their wholesome style of ever-escalating slapstick, the routines seem quaint, almost naive. Unavoidably, as they well knew, the mood of comedy shifts with every generation.
That is until two figures enter the frame: the latest wives. Shirley Henderson plays Lucille Hardy (his third wife) with a voice like an AM radio. The brilliant Nina Arianda comes in like a lightning strike and nearly upends the entire thing as the terse Russian Ida Kitaeva (Laurel’s fourth). “Two double acts for the price of one!” a promoter quips. Only then does Stan & Ollie develop into more than a cutesy throwback, coming alive with vociferous wit.
And with it stirs the realisation that however many spouses Laurel and Hardy went through, they were forever wed to each other. Throughout, they affectionately address each other as “babe”. One betrayal, deep in their past, is fashioned into a crisis the movie doesn’t really need. But then again, it means we get to see them reconcile with a warm embrace in a Savoy hotel room – an affirmation of one of the most imperishable comedy relationships of all time.
IN CINEMAS FROM FEB 21
Video: Sony Pictures Classics
This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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