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Stan & Ollie
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by Jay Seaver

"A movie to, at the very least, really like, about all-time greats."
5 stars

"Stan and Ollie" is an affectionate film about a couple of people who, by all appearances, seem to deserve that affection, and that's not as easy to pull off as you might think. It's easy to wind up making something too lightweight, or insert too much external strife to create drama. This film rearranges things, but never loses track of how a great deal of what made Laurel & Hardy work on-screen is also what makes their real-life relationship compelling.

In 1937, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were one of Hollywood's biggest draws, although their contracts with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) kept them on a leash. By 1953, they were yesterday's news, although they had plans for a comeback picture, a take on Robin Hood. To drum up interest, they booked a tour of Great Britain, although promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) is only able to book them into small venues. Hopefully they'll be doing better by the time their wives (Shirley Henderson & Nina Arianda) arrive in London.

There have always been two Stan Laurels and two Oliver Hardys, and the makers of this movie seem to love both versions equally, and base their entire approach to the film on this. Stanley Laurel was a sharp comedy mind who planned their gags meticulously and agitated for a better deal rather than a simpleton while Oliver "Babe" Hardy doesn't have his onscreen persona's short temper, but their alter egos fit them like gloves, and when they arrive at their first (rather small) hotel, they enter doing a bit. It's a delightful comic moment that does a lot - it lets Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly to do some Laurel & Hardy-style comedy without simply recreating something from one of their films, it gives the audience an idea of just how practiced these guys are, and the generosity of it goes a long way to establishing the audience's fondness for the guys. They're giving away a bit of what they do for a living, for an audience of one woman at the front desk, when a lot of people who still think of themselves as big stars would instead be demanding.

There's love in that attitude, and not just the usual "the show must go on" type where entertainers are providing a needed escape for themselves or the audience. The connection with the audience is genuine, but it's the connection with each other that's interesting; though they'll tell people that they're little more than work friends, thrown together by accident as Roach mixed and matched actors he had under contract until he found something that worked, the idea of doing this thing with someone else is painful to the point of betrayal, and the chance to perform together again hard to resist. These two love each other and their other selves, and the film is at its most joyously earnest when it plays as that sort of love story.

A love story doesn't necessarily mean a romance, though that's the usual assumption, which is why it's a genuine delight when the wives show up and make themselves a big part of the film's latter half. The script by Jeff Pope has a lot of references to ex-wives and how Hollywood marriages are doomed in the opening segment, which seems to be setting up the idea that they're each other's true other half, but instead Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel appear and they're just what their husbands need, and no mere secondary relationships. Whether bantering among themselves or serving as voices of reason and support for their husbands, they're vital and entertaining, with Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda giving funny, well-rounded performances good enough that you could get a pretty good movie about the team's career as seen from their perspective.

Instead, the film gives Coogan and Reilly a showcase, and both are kind of terrific. Reilly gets covered in more prosthetic makeup, but underneath, he's got the same sort of everyman geniality that's often been his stock in trade, although what rounds the performance into something that seems more than an imitation is that one can see the frustration and pride that rubs up against his desire to get along, even before it seems important, but that's off-stage; on-stage, it's clear that his character's annoyance with his partner is part of the gag as opposed to something coming up from within him. Coogan's Stanley clearly loves being a part of Laurel & Hardy a bit more that Oliver, and Coogan does a great job when asked to put his heart on his sleeve. He generally impresses in making Stanley meticulous without being fussy, and the pair of them are extremely well-matched, whether executing comedy with impressive precision or showing a level of off-stage affection they sometimes have a hard time acknowledging.

The filmmakers pour a great deal of love into this movie, enough for it to overflow, and that seems entirely appropriate; for all Laurel & Hardy built a career on playing up their annoyance, there's love in every direction here, whether for each other, what they created, the women in their lives, and their audience, and it clearly goes in both directions. It's earnest and sincere enough that it's difficult to not ultimately love the movie itself, even if one is initially inclined to just see it as quite good.

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originally posted: 01/23/19 11:44:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

2/02/19 Bob Dog Beguiling bittersweet biopic - - perfect portrayals! 5 stars
1/01/19 Louise This is a very embarrassing movie specifically because Steve Coogan is such a bad actor. 1 stars
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  28-Dec-2018 (PG)
  DVD: 26-Mar-2019

  11-Jan-2019 (PG)

  21-Feb-2019 (PG)
  DVD: 26-Mar-2019

Directed by
  Jon S. Baird

Written by
  Jeff Pope

  John C. Reilly
  Steve Coogan
  Shirley Henderson
  Nina Arianda
  Rufus Jones
  Danny Huston

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