Opening today in the Triangle:
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.