November 11, 2019

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Revisiting comedy team's charm

Uncanny acting and bittersweet script a fitting tribute to Laurel and Hardy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (283 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (283 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Laurel and Hardy, arguably one of the greatest comedy teams ever to grace the Vaudeville stage and screen, enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership. In fact, it lasted so long, it might as well have been a marriage.

That is the dramatic gist of this film by Jon S. Baird (Filth), who examines the duo in their career twilight, touring the music halls and theatres of England, circa 1953.

UNIT STILLS PHOTOGRAPHY</p><p>Stan and Ollie uses a bittersweet script and fine acting to paint a fitting portrait of the comedy duo.</p></p>

UNIT STILLS PHOTOGRAPHY

Stan and Ollie uses a bittersweet script and fine acting to paint a fitting portrait of the comedy duo.

The Lancashire-born Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) has the advantage of being on home turf. Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) is hobbled by health issues. While their routines are very much rooted in the English music hall tradition, they are past their prime. Feature films are the medium of choice for comedy duos. Laurel, who has a plaintive moment staring at a freshly installed billboard for the latest Abbott and Costello movie, is trying to cut a deal for a new film based on the legend of Robin Hood. It becomes increasingly obvious that the English producer he’s trying to contact is avoiding him.

Mostly, one should feel free to go to Stan & Ollie to pretty much bask in the enjoyment of how Reilly and Coogan replicate Laurel and Hardy’s routines, especially in the bit in which Laurel visits Hardy, his leg suspended in a cast, in a hospital bed.

Hardy is under different stresses, including failing health and an unhealthy penchant for the vices of drinking and gambling.

To outward appearances, the pair are like the best old married couples, engaging in affectionate banter and being mindful of each other’s frailties. Their repartée is in some ways a reflection of their comedy work, a sign of deep connection.

But as the tour encounters added difficulties that necessitate additional work — publicity stunts and public appearances — cracks start to show in the relationship. It stems from an act of comedic infidelity. The film’s preface shows how, when Laurel quit working for producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), Hardy was contractually obliged to work with a different partner. Even decades later, Laurel feels the sting of betrayal.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena) handles this conflict with some subtlety, occasionally refracting the team’s difficulties through the lens of their wives. Ollie’s wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) has a fractious relationship with Laurel’s Russian wife Ida (Nina Arianda) and their occasional sniping reflects the tensions between their partners. How strange and funny that they share what is arguably one of the most moving moments of the film.

Unit stills photography</p><p>Hardy battles declining health and sagging ticket sales on a British tour in 1953.</p></p>

Unit stills photography

Hardy battles declining health and sagging ticket sales on a British tour in 1953.

Mostly, one should feel free to go to Stan & Ollie to pretty much bask in the enjoyment of how Reilly and Coogan replicate Laurel and Hardy’s routines, especially in the bit in which Laurel visits Hardy, his leg suspended in a cast, in a hospital bed.

Coogan rather brilliantly mimics Laurel’s facial tics and elegant bits of business, but also steadfastly acknowledges the intelligence behind the buffoonery.

UNIT STILLS PHOTOGRAPHY</p><p>Laurel regrets seeing lucrative Hollywood opportunities pass him by.</p></p>

UNIT STILLS PHOTOGRAPHY

Laurel regrets seeing lucrative Hollywood opportunities pass him by.

And Reilly proves to be especially superb as Hardy. Even under latex jowls and a fat suit, the actor nails Hardy’s unexpected physical grace, as well as his fourth-wall-breaking relationship to his audience. (Hardy should have been the patron saint of exasperation.)

He was so much more than a straight man, and Reilly — the veteran of several films opposite Will Ferrell — undoubtedly understands better than most.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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