Stan & Ollie

STAN & OLLIE. Starring:  Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, and Shirley Henderson. Also starring, Rufus Jones. Directed by Jon S. Baird. Rated PG (Mild coarse language). 98 min,

This biographical comedy-drama is based on the later stages of life of the famous duo comedy team, “Laurel and Hardy” and focuses on the music-hall tour the two did together in 1953. The film achieved multiple nominations in the latest round of the Golden Globe Awards, and the British Academy Awards, earning praise for the film as a whole and for the acting performances of Coogan and Reilly, in particular. After hours of makeup preparation, the actors maintained a striking resemblance to Laurel and Hardy in real life.

The film is a heart-warming, affectionate account of the duo’s farewell tour as ageing comics. They began the tour, after years apart, and when their stage and film acts were declining in popularity with the introduction of new sound technology, and the threat of television. It focuses on the end of their professional careers. The duo’s reputation as Kings of Hollywood comedy was well behind them when they began their tour, which became a hit.

Battling resentment and feelings of betrayal from past contracts and commitments left unrealised, “Stan” Laurel (Steve Coogan ) and “Ollie Hardy” (John C. Reilly) toured The United Kingdom and Ireland while struggling at the same time to get a film made. During the tour, the pair wrote and developed gags for the film they planned, and took the time to get to know each other again.

Facing insufficient funding for the tour in its final stages, Stan is told that their film project has been canceled, and he can’t bear to tell Ollie. In London, they were joined by their wives (Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel) who had their own set of tensions, which provided “two double acts for the price of one”. The two women were fiercely protective of their men, but were also wittily competitive. After ill health struck Ollie down, Stan and Ollie realised how attached they were to each other, and they reconciled emotionally, before performing to thunderous applause before an adoring audience.

Doctors told Hardy that his failing health forbade him ever to work again, but he went back to perform with Stan, because he knew that Stan needed him, and that they belonged on stage together. An Epilogue to the film reveals that the 1953 tour was the last time they worked together, before Ollie died in 1957, and Stan in 1965 after refusing to work on stage with any other partner.

The film movingly communicates a bitter-sweet relationship between the two men. It goes behind the scenes to reveal the drama that re-united the pair, and the film movingly captures the highs and lows of a partnership that kept audiences entertained and laughing for decades.

The film achieves its impact at two main levels. The first is the enactment of the tensions between Laurel and Hardy as they try to cope with their professional and personal disappointments. The second is the depiction of the distinctive brand of comedy they produced as a team. Their comedy was a unique brand of cleverly crafted slapstick, supported by excellent comic timing, and Coogan and Reilly capture it superbly. The viewer is transported effortlessly back to Stan & Ollie’s original comic routines, and both Coogan and Reilly deliver performances, which capture the look, and the mannerisms of the legendary twosome unbelievably well. The film’s accompanying comic banter is also additionally entertaining, as when Stan comments that seeing lots of Romans around must mean that there is “a sale at the Forum”.

Overall, the film is less a comic tour-de-force than a nostalgic look at a long-lasting professional union of two extraordinarily talented comedians. It is a gentle movie, but also at times a sad one.

The movie is basically an entertaining narrative about an enduring relationship, that pays admiring homage to a famous theatrical couple, and Jon Baird’s direction of the film is subtle, meaningful, and respectful. This is a film that leaves the viewer with very fond memories of Laurel and Hardy, and all that they have contributed to comedy on film and stage.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Entertainment One Films

Released February 21, 2019

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