Stan & Ollie

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This is another movie opening this weekend that I was really looking forward to, but was a bit disappointed by (Glass being the other). This film stars two actors I love — John C. Reily (who Americans know from a lot of his wacky Will Ferrell stuff) and Steve Coogan (who Brits know for all his talk shows and comedies that are big in the UK).

I’m also a fan of movies that tell me about people I know little about. Being born in the late ‘60s, I merely had reruns of Laurel and Hardy on TV, and I wasn’t the biggest fan. I did love Abbott & Costello, and having seen documentaries on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin recently, I was eager to learn more about this comedy duo. And, things started off promising. There’s a long dolly shot with the guys walking through a back lot on the set of one of their films. Those shots always win me over, despite how many times I’ve seen them on screen. It conveys the hustle and bustle of what happens on a film set, and with this movie, it also tells us a few little things about the characters. Oliver Hardy is placing a bet, and bitching about an ex-wife. Stan Laurel is concerned about the production of a movie.

The problem this movie has is that it focuses on the final years of their lives. It’s a lose-lose for filmmakers because, if they show us the early years and rise to fame, all the critics complain we’ve seen these stories before and it’s cliche. But seeing the final years doesn’t let us learn as much about what made them such a successful duo, that made over 100 movies and millions of dollars. Rupert Everett found out the hard way, when a few months ago he gave us The Happy Prince, dealing with the sad, final few years of Oscar Wilde’s life. Again, this is one of the best comedic writers of all-time, and all we learned about Wilde is that he liked male prostitutes and milked his ex for money.

We learn a bit more about Laurel and Hardy than that, but I wanted to know more. Unless this movie is just trying to appeal to the 75 and older crowd that remembers watching them on TV and already knows their history….who is this movie for?

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. There were moments I adored. Seeing the guys do a dance at the start of their western Way Out West, or watching them check into a hotel and doing one of their routines with luggage and a bell ring, that doesn’t have the receptionist the least bit amused. The ending is so sweet, and had me in tears. All great stuff.

It’s also great how filmmaker Jon S. Baird can convey subtly, why these guys worked so well together and the bond they had.

It’s great that they’re not just doing caricature. I mean, as much as I liked Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury, it seems any time someone plays a singer (Ray Charles, Jim Morrison, Elvis, etc.), it often falls into a caricature that you feel could be a bit you see on Saturday Night Live. I never felt that here. I’d love to see Reilly get an Oscar nomination. We hear all about how great Christian Bale was gaining weight to play Dick Cheney (it was caricature, which didn’t work for me). Sure, Reilly merely wore a fat-suit, but that twinkle in his eye, just warms your heart.

Coogan isn’t chopped liver, and he’s terrific. My only problem is that I’m such a huge fan of his work, that I always kept thinking of Coogan more than thinking of Stan Laurel.

The movie, loosely based on A.J. Marriot’s book “Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours”, deals with the duo late in their career, as they do some live shows. The ticket sales are often weak, and that worries Stan, as he’s trying to make money to finance a Robin Hood parody.

There’s a snakey promoter (Rufus Jones), who is doing what promoters do — trying to make money while also BS-ing the talent when he has to.

There’s a certain sadness when you see the guys enter a party, hotel, restaurant…or anywhere…and realize there was a time they would’ve been hounded by fans and autograph seekers, and they’re not anymore. They still sort of expect it, and sometimes prepare little bits (“You get out of the cab on this side, and I’ll run over….”)

Oliver isn’t in the best of health, and that plays a part in some of their shows. At one point when he goes to the hospital, Stan brings in a replacement. It pains him to do this, but it pains him more that Ollie once did that to him on a movie. It was refreshing to hear them fight about that, because it was unlike anything I’ve seen on screen before. Usually characters are screaming, throwing dishes, slamming doors. These guys seemed like reasonable adults, both explaining why they did what they did.

Another refreshing thing about this movie is that the wives weren’t portrayed as in a lot of movies — actresses that are just there to look pretty and hang on the arm of the male leads. Both Shirley Henderson (as Lucille Hardy) and Nina Arianda (as Ida Kitaeva Laurel) are brilliant in their meaty roles, and it’s nice that they’re given some stuff to do.

Often times, though…the movie gets redundant. A lot of people coming up to the duo telling them how funny they used to be, etc. It’s also hard to believe that people at a studio wouldn’t recognize them. Come on, it’s the ‘50s, not the ‘90s. Everyone at the studios would know exactly who they are. It’s not like in the ‘50s people had so many other outlets for finding comedy and entertainment. And along those lines, I already glanced on Rotten Tomatoes and saw that a number of critics said that this film will bring new generations of fans to this comedy team. Nope. It won’t do that. A music biopic can do that, because songs are a different animal. I can picture a 13-year-old seeing Bohemian Rhapsody and wanting to go buy the A Night at the Opera album or CD (or I should say…download it). Comedy doesn’t always work that way. As you’re watching someone on screen peeling a hard-boiled egg, or smacking a guy with a hat — young folks aren’t falling on the floor laughing. Hell, I wasn’t, and I’m a grown man! At times, there are scenes of the duo on stage performing and shots of the audiences laughing hysterically. It’s just going to make younger people wonder…was everyone so hard-up for entertainment in the olden days that the silliest pratfalls and stunts seem funny? You just can’t explain the magic and brilliance of a classic comedy team to a different generation.

Now, that may have worked with The Great Buster documentary we got on Keaton last year, but that’s because any generation can be enthralled by such dangerous and elaborate stunts he performed in the name of humor. That’s why it had contemporary people like Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) speaking about the great influence.

Stan & Ollie, despite touching my heart and being a decent way to spend a few hours…just won’t have that effect. And that’s a shame.

2 ½ stars out of 5.



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