A sweet, if doleful homage to an illustrious comedy duo from Hollywood’s yesteryear is this limited biopic where the leads outweigh a mostly commonplace display.
Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie stars Steve Coogan (The Trip) and John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers, and currently in a misjudged Holmes & Watson with Will Ferrell, again) who bring more to the characters than extended comedy routines or padding and prosthetics/makeup.
Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) appeared in over 100 films and dozens of features, and the approach of Baird (behind HBO’s Vinyl) may be misleading at first from a nifty tracking shot in 1937 to settling in the twilight of a lengthy career that wasn’t really that pleasant of a partnership. But, when displaying their impeccable comic timing and enactments a legacy fueled by camaraderie truly resonates. Perhaps if more of their time near the height of their success was on view the project as a whole might be more cohesive.
Though in their company it’s clear how dedicated the established character actors are to their prized roles. From the script by Jeff Pope (who wrote Philomena which co-starred Coogan in fine form opposite Judi Dench) the disparate personalities are evident. Distrust and bitterness come from dealings with money-minded producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston, son of John, and of Wonder Woman and Big Eyes) that has Hardy okay with negotiating schemes to make ‘Zenobia’ and leave Laurel on unfriendly terms.
A chance to enkindle their professional showmanship comes by way of a British whirlwind tour (close to Laurel’s and Coogan’s neck of the woods; Hardy hailed from Georgia). There are a fair share of punch-lines but teary moments too as the legends perform in front of sparse audiences in theatre houses. Coogan and Reilly can deliver the memorable bits through a mutual uncanny rhythm that would indicate an extraordinary amount of preparatory time (more than clearly was allotted). Which often exceeds the genuine attention to period detail from the filmmakers and craft contributors.
The witty repartee is one thing, but the actors endow qualities like diffidence, quick-tempered, and vulnerability and awkwardness that was hardly noticeable from their screen personas which will prove all the more interesting to the likely older, more discerning onlookers. In this ‘warts and all’ nostalgia, Baird doesn’t neglect this distaff side — the better half of Laurel and Hardy – who were quite impassioned, as well as droll themselves, making their presence known once the proceedings are well underway. Nina Arianda has an amusing, inflated air as Stan’s Russian-accented wife Ida and Shirley Henderson lays on an unassertive voice as Ollie’s devoted, protective missus Lucille. They probably wouldn’t mind being in a fine mess or two themselves.