Even if you read the gossip magazines like “People” with news about divorces, births, miscarriages, and off-set fights, you may still think that actors do not have personal lives. Or maybe you believe that in the personal lives, they act in the same manner as they do on the big screen. Take the example of Laurel and Hardy; i.e., Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). During their skits—and they had quite a few during their long careers on the stage and screen—Laurel would play the simpleton while Hardy would be the more sophisticated one who’d look with condescension on his teammate. Never mind that Oliver Hardy was fat, and that the excess weight would contribute to heart problems that found him losing 100 pounds, down to 138 in his final year. And that Stan Laurel was slimmer, handsomer, and a writer. Both were klutzy on stage, but to paraphrase George Orwell, some people are klutzier than others with Laurel having to take guff from Hardy regularly. To prove the point, along comes “Stan & Ollie,” made by the Scottish-born director Jon S. Baird. Baird is known mostly for TV episodes but he did have two other feature films: “Filth,” about a corrupt junkie cop with bipolar disorder, and “Cass,” about an orphaned Jamaican baby raised by a white couple in a white neighborhood. Interesting stuff, offbeat like Baird’s current feature.
Baird’s “Stan & Ollie” does spend time reviving the stage shtick, concentrating at first on exposition with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and their first pic together in 1921. In 1953 their careers looked ready to be wrapped up during a tour of Britain and Ireland playing to disappointing numbers at the box office in the UK countryside. Yet they sprang back to life in London drawing a full house of laughing, applauding, and greatly appreciating the duo that they remember so well from the films and stage appearances of the past. They owe much to the marketing savvy of their British promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).
Much is owed in this movie to the make-up team, twenty-one people, each concentrating on getting John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan to be the spit-and-image of Laurel and Hardy. Reilly did not have to gain 40 pounds as Christian Bale did to play the lead role in “Vice.” Instead he was given a prosthetic double chin along with the padded belly while others in the make-up department styled hair, special effects teeth, contact lenses, leaving some work for the mould maker and silicone technician. Solid supporting roles come from Shirley Henderson as wife Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as wife Ida Kataeva Laurel. The two women add to the comic touches; Henderson with her squeaky voice and our visual disbelief of being a foot or more shorter and much slimmer than Reilly; Arianda showing off her Russian accent and her assistance with her husband’s drinking problem which she solves by grabbing each glass he picks up and drinking the liquid herself.
Laurel and Hardy did not always get along in their private lives though they seem to be as close as conjoined twins, traveling with each other, and dining together with their wives. They are savvy enough not to break up like so many duos who have always performed better as a team, though Ollie resented that Stan went on to act in a movie without him while Oliver was stuck in a contract. Their bond is shown most when Ollie collapses with a heart condition and later dies. Stan refuses all offers to perform without his favorite partner though he continues to serve as a comedy writer.
The movie is a genial one filled, if not so much by the belly laughs that Laurel and Hardy evoked throughout their careers, then with gentle humor. We may smile rather than laugh, but nothing will stop us in the audience from doffing out caps to the duo that was named in a poll of UK comedians “the seventh best comedy team ever.”
98 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+
Stan & Ollie
Cast: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan