There’s a good reason that director Jon S. Baird’s delightful new biopic is called Stan & Ollie. Rather than capitalizing on the recognizable monikers of Laurel & Hardy, the film gets to the heart of what Baird is most interested in: the men behind the comic icons.
And what men he’s cast to play the aging duo! While it may be easier to envision John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) portraying the portly Oliver Hardy than British comedian Steve Coogan (Philomena) playing the lean Stan Laurel, both do wonders under the less-is-more approach favored by makeup supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and Oscar-winning prosthetics designer Mark Coulier, who allowed as much of the actors to come through as possible. Mind you, Reilly still required some padding to fill out his frame and four hours a day in the makeup chair to add Hardy’s well-known rolls of flesh. But Reilly’s face is still clearly visible, and the same goes for Coogan, who sports little more than a fake chin, false teeth and customized tips to make his ears protrude.
Beyond the spare makeup, it’s the actors’ glorious, precise performances that resurrect these bygone stars whose cinematic comedy partnership lasted from 1927 to 1950, spanning 107 films (including 32 silent shorts, 40 sound shorts, 23 features and 12 cameo appearances) and defining the notion of a double act during an era that also produced comedy greats like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But unlike those singular stars of the silent era, Laurel and Hardy’s undeniable chemistry transferred seamlessly as wordplay was masterfully integrated into their hilarious routines. It’s a feat that Coogan and Reilly handle delightfully as they do one of the duo’s famous routines, an iconic dance set to “At The Ball, That’s All,” from 1937’s Way Out West, which is recreated during the bravura tracking shot that opens the film.
This 6-minute sequence follows Stan and Ollie from their dressing room to a walk across a Hollywood lot, past actors clad as Roman centurions and Egyptian pharaohs, and finally onto a set filled with extras dressed as cowboys and saloon girls, where the duo engage in an argument with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, son of the legendary actor/writer/director John Huston), the oily, cigar-chomping studio boss. This opening showcases the Hollywood of yore and allows Baird and cinematographer Laurie Rose to indulge in some showboating, but it also predominantly functions to establish Laurel and Hardy at the height of their fame, when their contract with Roach is up. Stan believes they’re being mistreated and considers taking their act to 20th Century Fox. Ollie, meanwhile, prefers to stay put after a string of failed marriages have left him debt-ridden.
It’s the lingering personal wounds from this period that fester (and occasionally ooze) during the film proper, which takes place during 1953, long after their popularity has been supplanted by Abbot and Costello. Nearly broke, the old team embarks on a theater tour of the British Isles, performing live in a series of music hall venues with the hopes of securing financing for a long-planned Robin Hood spoof (Rob ’Em Good) by the time they reach London.
It’s been eight years since they made their last studio picture, however, and their stars have dimmed considerably. Arriving in rain-soaked Newcastle, they quickly discover that their comeback tour will be much less prestigious than the one promised by theater promoter/producer Bernard Delfont (a deliciously smarmy Rufus Jones), who’s booked them into a boarding house, rather than a hotel.
Nevertheless, they soldier on, initially playing to sparse crowds in third-rate venues, but after they agree to perform free publicity under mortifying circumstances, the aging duo begin selling out their shows that include their favorite old material (charmingly recreated by Reilly and Coogan), until they eventually secure a two-week engagement at London’s Lyceum Theater. But first, they’re joined by Lucille (Shirley Henderson), Ollie’s third wife, and Ida (Nina Arianda), Stan’s fourth, who can’t stand each other. This oil-and-water dynamic eventually spreads to Stan and Ollie, who’ve survived the highs and lows not only of their various wives, but also of their work and occasional bankruptcies.
Baird’s picture and the script by Jeff Pope (Oscar-nominated writer of Philomena) might not offer any greater insights into Laurel and Hardy, though the director’s found his perfect performers in Coogan and Reilly, who clearly delight in the duo’s dance. If you’re not a fan already, Stan & Ollie will likely lead you toward more of their nice messes. ◆
Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Rufus Jones, Richard Cant, Susy Kane, Ella Kenion, Roger Ringrose, Joseph Balderrama, Greg Canestrari, Harry Hepple, Keith MacPherson, Stewart Alexander, Paul Bailey, Andy Mihalache, Conrad Asquith and Danny Huston. Written by Jeff Pope. Directed by Jon S. Baird. At Boston Common, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.