Pointedly not titled Laurel and Hardy this is an attempt to get at the personal relationship behind arguably the greatest big screen comedy duo of all time. After all, quiz film fans on their favourite ‘Early Cinema’ solo comedians and you’ll likely get split decisions between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; those voting for best comedy groups might favour The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers. But it’s hard to imagine any double act to rival Laurel and Hardy, bowler-hatted slapstick geniuses with an opposites-attract chemistry of rake-thin, naïve Englishman (Stan Laurel) and chubby-cheeked American schemer (Oliver Hardy).
Their 1920s and ‘30s heyday included over 100 short films and 20-plus features, most notably classics Sons of the Desert (1933) and Way Out West (1937). Stan and Ollie, however, apart from a brief prologue, finds them near down-and-out at the tail end of their careers, forced to take a stage tour of provincial England and hoping to secure funding for one last comeback movie. But Ollie’s poor health and simmering resentment over an old, perceived career betrayal might just drive them off the stage before dwindling audiences do.
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN… NEWCASTLE
Director Jon S. Baird’s last feature was his go-for-broke adaptation of Irving Welsh’s scabrous novel Filth, with James McAvoy as a crooked cop. He opens here with a similarly showboating set-piece, a one-shot, six-minute scene that takes Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) from their Warner Bros. dressing room to soundstage, quickly filling us in on their mutual respect and affection, esteemed place in the industry, chequered love lives — “I’m never going to get married again, I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like and buy her a house,” quips Laurel — and the prickly relationship with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) that will drive them apart.
Things then immediately shuttle forward some 16 years to a rundown guesthouse in Newcastle, England. The pair, now showing their middle age, endure a cross-country tour of second-rate theatres to re-ignite a new film, Robin Hood spoof Rob ‘Em Good, and a return to the big time.
Indeed that’s what their two spouses, protective former script girl Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and brash Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) expect when they arrive from Hollywood. But Stan, always the brains behind the work, might be hiding some bad business news; and Ollie might not be letting on just how much he’s struggling with his weak heart. As a London finale looms, another fine mess — this time a real disaster, not a staged one — looks ever more likely.
“TWO DOUBLE ACTS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE”
Are there better doppelgangers for Stan and Ollie than Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly? Not only are both supremely accomplished actors, they have the physical comedy skills to reproduce the pair’s trademark mannerisms and vaudeville routines, notably the ‘Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts’ sketch from County Hospital. Coogan has clearly studied Laurel, a fellow Lancastrian, in minute detail. But it’s no mere impression, it’s a fully realised rendering of Stan’s finicky, control freakery and quiet intensity.
And Reilly is entirely convincing as the sweet-natured ‘Babe,’ easygoing up to a point but also stubbornly pursuing his own vices (here, chiefly gambling). Applause too for the make-up and prosthetics on both men, particularly on Reilly, whose fat suit (and chins!) are seamlessly convincing.
But the spirit of generosity in Stan and Ollie extends to two supporting performances that threaten to upstage the main event. Henderson and Arianda are a comedy act in their own right as chalk-and-cheese wives Lucille and Ida, gleefully sniping at each other, each other’s partner and basically anyone seen as a threat to their beloveds. As beleaguered producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones in another scene-stealing turn) rightly winces, the couples are “two double acts for the price of one,” and the film benefits enormously from its quadruple threat.
STAGE TO SCREEN
The post-war British tour is based on a book documenting Laurel and Hardy’s real 1950s tour (Buster Keaton did a similar series of regional gigs around the same time), and it’s a great juxtaposition, to force two former screen giants down to size on cramped foreign stages. It showcases just how adept they are as performers, and how much actual graft — with Stan as driven taskmaster — went into their routines.
Baird repeatedly cuts away from the onstage antics to show appreciative audiences roaring with laughter. It’s clearly a way to demonstrate the ongoing affection the public had for the pair, even when long past their prime. But given that a large part of Laurel and Hardy’s appeal is the off-hand, almost accidental way in which the gags and the pratfalls land so perfectly, there’s too often a sense of trying too hard to convince the film’s audience of how funny these guys are, when it’s already abundantly clear.
This is also evident in the screenplay from Jeff Pope (Coogan’s co-writer and fellow Oscar nominee on Philomena), which is light on its feet when trading zingy one-liners but a little stiff when trying to get to the heart of Stan and Ollie’s bromance. The tendency to underline and over-emphasize with on-the-nose dialogue feels like writing that Stan Laurel would have scrapped in an early script draft, knowing that he and his partner could convey as much with a gesture or glance. The same is true of Coogan and Reilly, and the film is at its most touching, and authentic, when allowing their mutual respect, and, yes, love to silently emanate through the screen.
IS ‘STAN AND OLLIE’ GOOD?
If Stan and Ollie occasionally overplays its hand, only a curmudgeon wouldn’t admit that it ultimately wins out with its pair of aces. This is a tribute act made by experts that regularly captures the magic of what made these two performers so indelible. When Coogan and Reilly enact the duo’s trademark duet, ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,’ this former Laurel and Hardy fan got chills of nostalgia, even though it’s not a performance seen or heard in many a year.
At its best, Stan and Ollie taps into the simple, timeless joy that these two men could effect on an audience, on stage or screen. Surprisingly melancholy at times, but ultimately determined to charm the audience into leaving with a big silly grin plastered on their collective face, if it’s all a little gentle, safe and predictable, this is comfort food of the highest quality.
Stan and Ollie gets a limited run in American cinemas on December 28, while it hits UK screens on January 11.