Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly Are Spot On As STAN & OLLIE

Opening today in the Triangle:

STAN & OLLIE (Dir. Jon S. Baird, 2018) 

Despite the critically lambasted commercial flop HOLMES & WATSON, John C. Reilly has had an interesting 2018 with THE SISTER BROTHERS, RALPH WRECKS THE INTERNET, and now this biopic of a legendary comic duo. In fact all his ’18 work has been about duos – Reilly partnered with Joaquin Phoenix in THE SISTER BROTHERS, he teamed up with Sarah Silverman again for the WRECK-IT-RALPH sequel, and he re-united with Will Farrell for HOLMES & WATSON, the only one of these films I haven’t seen. Hell, two of the movies even have ampersands in the title!

But STAN & OLLIE, in which Reilly is paired with Steve Coogan, who also appears in HOLMES & WATSON (sorry, I’ll stop mentioning that movie) is the best of the bunch as it’s an affectionate, touching, and extremely witty tribute to friendship and old timey showbiz charm.

As the film begins, opening titles tell us that “by the summer of 1937, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood.” We meet Coogan as Stan, and Reilly as Ollie in their dressing room at MGM Studios where they are shooting WAY OUT WEST. As the camera follows them through the lot to the set, they discuss their divorces, their new relationships, and their want to own their own pictures.

Danny Houston pops up as legendary Film Producer and Director, Hal Roach, who clashes with Stan over his contract as it’s about to end. Roach tells him he won’t release Ollie from his contract – Stan: “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel.” Roach: “That’s wht you think.”

Shortly after that the film cuts to Newcastle, England in 1953 where Stan & Ollie have come to go on tour in order to set up funding for a new movie. But the duo’s fortunes have fallen and they find themselves in a shabby hotel playing for half-filled venues. We learn through flashbacks, that Ollie made a movie without Stan when he was fired by the studio – 1939’s ZENOPHOBIA, referred to here as “that elephant picture,” in which Ollie starred with Harry Langdon, a very Stan Laurel-ish comic actor.

Coogan and Reilly prove their chops are up to snuff as Laurel and Hardy onstage re-creating their bits. Their performances as the iconic duo are spot on; it’s obvious they studied every bit of film they could find of the famous funnymen.

As their wives, the wonderfully mousey Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, and the sharp, acerbic Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel arrive in London as Stan and Ollie have graduated to a bigger concert halls with sold out shows. Their promoter/producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) achieved this by getting them to do publicity around the country.

But while the shows are successes, Stan learns that the movie can’t get backing and keeps it secret from Ollie, telling him it’s still a “go” and they rehearses routines from the screenplay together.

One of the most stirring, and impactful scenes involves the partners going at it at a party after one of their shows. They both say angry, and brutal things to each other; things that could destroy their friendship forever. Both actors are brilliant in this moment, as they are in the rest of the film.

STAN & OLLIE does just what it sets out to do: pay homage to two lovable talents from their Golden Age hayday to their twilight years as the fame and the funny gags fade. Coogan and Reilly’s terrific turns here is up there with their best work, and Director Baird’s unpretentious, spare stylizing frames their act and the scenery surrounding them superbly. There are lots of films worth seeing in our current Awards season, but despite that it didn’t get any Oscar nods, this little gem deserves more attention.

More later...

THE TRIP TO SPAIN: Third Time Is So Not The Charm

Opening today at an indie art house near me:

THE TRIP TO SPAIN (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2017)

So, just like in the first two TRIP films (THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO ITALY), it begins with a phone call between Welsh comedian/T.V. personality Rob Brydon and the much better known British actor/writer/producer Steve Coogan.

“Let’s do a series of restaurant reviews – this time, a trip to Spain for the New York Times,” Coogan suggests to Brydon and off we go for another round of immaculate meals at posh restaurants, where the dinner conversation consists of dueling celebrity impressions.

The traveling fine dining duo trot out their comical takes on the voices of Michael Caine (one of their specialties), Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, and Roger Moore, among others (this film is heavy on the Moore mimicry, which is interesting because it was shot in 2016, way ahead of the James Bond actor’s death in May of this year).

They take a road trip along the coast of Spain, stopping in villages and towns such as Getaria, Hondarribia, Santiago de Compostela, Sos del Rey Católico, Prejano, and Cuenca, Almagro, and Granada.

Now I had to look those places up (thanks to The Telegraph’s The stunning filming locations from the Trip to Spain), because they aren’t properly identified in the movie. Neither are the names of the restaurants they visit, which is odd because they are supposedly reviewing them, and they frequently cut to shots of the chefs preparing their food in the kitchen. Apart from that, there’s not many shots of the food either.

No, the scenery and foodie theme is just a backdrop to the impressions with each droll broke improvising bits and skits with their exaggerated characterizations.

This can get pretty annoying especially when the impressions falter. We learn that Coogan does a better Jagger than Brydon (Brydon even does Jagger doing Michael Caine at one point), Brydon does a better Sean Connery than Coogan, but neither of their Roger Moore voices is spot on, though Brydon’s comes the closest.

This makes for most cringeworthy scene in the movie, where Brydon rambles on and on as Moore while Coogan, and their lovely lady guests (Claire Keelen, Marta Barrio) sit by awkwardly trying to converse.

They have these meals, then retire to their hotel rooms and have phone conversations – Coogan with his agency, son, and girlfriend; Brydon with his wife and an agent claiming he can make him a big star. These suggest conflicts and some sort of plot development but not much comes from them, it’s always back to the impressions.

This is frustrating because Coogan has a possibly juicy storyline about a project he’s working on – a follow-up to PHILOMENA, which he starred, co-wrote, and produced – getting green lit, but they want to bring in another writer. Coogan starts off the film on a high from his success with PHILOMENA (something that he brings up often), but there are hints that his star isn’t on the rise anymore, while Brydon, happily married with kids, may be on the verge of a breakthrough but these ideas never go anywhere.

Instead we get scenes of these guys dressing up like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot, and making a stop at the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Jaca, Spain, which is fabled to be the resting place of the Holy Grail – something they, of course, riff on.

As with the previous films, THE TRIP TO SPAIN is the result of six episodes of the BBC TV series of the same name being edited together into a feature film. This makes me wonder if this material might be less tedious in its original format.

What we have here is a aimlessly talky travelogue, with these sad blokes doing endless impressions for an overlong running time (the film is one hour, 47 min). Despite some funny moments, such as Brydon’s Brando reciting Monty Python’s “The Spanish Inquisition” sketch, and incredible looking locations, this third time is so not the charm.

More later…