Stan & Ollie—Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Oliver Hardy in this dramatization of the legendary comedy duo’s final stage tour of the U.K. in the 1950s. It’s the era of Abbot and Costello, and Stan and Ollie, though not forgotten, are out of fashion and, especially in Ollie’s case, in poor health. They need the money, though, and they also hope a successful tour could help them land a movie deal.
The two men are deeply fond of each other, and they understand, in a way that their wives (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) and business associates don’t, how much they owe each other. But they’ve been together for decades, and as in any long-term relationship they have their challenges. Stan’s an obsessive workaholic, and he’s lying to Ollie about an impending movie deal. Ollie, for his part, didn’t have Stan’s back years earlier in a negotiation with Hal Roach (Danny Huston), and his fondness for overspending and betting on the horses is part of why the two are in financial straights. These resentments finally boil over, and the men have an ugly quarrel.
Like many fans I regard Laurel and Hardy as the greatest comedy team in all of movies; I’ve always thought their famous 1932 short The Music Box was the single “purest” piece of cinema comedy ever. In spite of my fandom, however, I don’t know enough about their lives to know how much the conflicts we see in this movie, directed by Jon S. Baird from a script by Jeff Pope, have been exaggerated, even invented, for the sake of generating drama.
I also don’t greatly care, because the real reason for the film’s existence is to showcase the astonishing performances of Coogan and Reilly. The movie has the slightly over-polished, ersatz look of many Brit period pieces of recent years, and there’s not much to it beyond the two leading men. But they’re enough. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen pop culture figures of such familiarity impersonated so successfully. Certainly the film’s superb prosthetic makeup artists deserve a solid share of the credit for this, but it’s mostly an acting triumph, and one that wouldn’t work at all if both stars weren’t equally flawless.
Coogan and Reilly perform a number of the team’s routines, including several slapstick bits, the magical dance from Way Out West and a beautiful duet on “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Impressive and entertaining as these re-creations are, though, I was more captivated by the scenes of the two men conversing and interacting normally.
The actors manage to make the iconic voices and delicate mannerisms sound like natural speech; they create the illusion that we’re seeing the real human beings from which the personas were derived—Stan’s halting, wounded, suffering-in-silence diffidence, and Ollie’s grandly deliberate pomposity. Most important of all, they get across the essential decency and sweetness that makes watching these guys struggle against one “nice mess” after another such a sublime expression of the human condition.
Free Solo—It’s baaack, bigger than ever; the National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan rockface in June 2017 plays for one week on the IMAX screen at AMC Desert Ridge. If it terrified you, as it did me, on a regular screen, think of the vertigo it could give you in IMAX.