THE BIG QUESTION that hovers over this well acted, efficiently directed movie is “why bother”?
It’s a charming tale about love and friendship; and (Stan) Laurel & (Olliver) Hardy are certainly part of comedy history. But there’s nothing here – that’s noteworthy or breakthrough or insightful – to really earn our engagement.
It’s Laurel & Hardy. The movie is big of heart, but that’s really not enough to answer that question
The movie is based on their last few years. At this point (mid nineteen fifties), the comic duo, who had their heyday just before the war, are playing to half empty music halls in England. Why? The suggestion is that a combination of (relatively) poor salaries, multiple alimonies and spendthrift ways have forced them to keep on performing, rerunning old routines to devoted if sparse English audiences. Almost as a sop to their egos, they fool themselves that they’re only in England as a stop-gap measure before filming a Robin Hood story.
But beyond the need for cash, the idea that runs through the movie is their need to keep performing as if somehow this would act as a brake on the flow of time. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. Their ars will not be longa for long: comedy is evolving and new performers – Norman Winston, Abbot and Costello – are grabbing the headlines. But Stan and Ollie and their audiences seem to live in a bubble where nothing has changed, where time stands still; where only the ghosts of the past – performances, audiences, old grievances – still exist
Except of course time doesn’t stand still. Their bodies are aging. Ollie’s heart, like his knees is weakening. And behind the staged bonhomie, their friendship, still shaken from an event seventeen years before over a money issue (forcing Hardy to appear in a movie without Laurel) is fraying.
The tension between their obvious love for each other and their irritation with each other gives the story the feel of one long drawn out therapy session. Will they recover their lost mutual affection? Will Ollie’s heart and knees survive for one last hurrah?
Do we care?
Both actors – John C Reilly as Hardy and Steve Coogan (Philomena) as Laurel – are superb. Coogan in particular (who fortunately didn’t have the handicap of playing in a fat suit and under tons of prosthetics) channels Stan Laurel stunningly well. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid schmaltz and conjure up the kind of childlike silliness of their routines with great affection. Perhaps there’s a meta fiction at work here: a nostalgic evocation of a lost time…a fond remembrance of things past in a world less divided.
The idea is as silly as their routines…a piece of froth to enjoy for ninety minutes before getting back to movies that matter
STAN and OLLIE. Dir: Jon S Baird. Writer: Jeff Pope (Philomena). With: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley), Nina Arianda (Goliath), Rufus Jones (W1A and the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine). Composer: Rolfe Kent (Downsizing). Cinematographer: Laurie Rose (Journeyman)