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The true story of Hollywood's greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the inimitable movie icons, Stan and Ollie is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair's triumphant farewell tour. With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda) - a formidable double act in their own right - the pair's love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.
The problem with any comedy double act is that if illness or death get in the way (think Dustin Gee and Les Dennis; or Morecambe and Wise) the wheels can come off for the other partner. "Stan and Ollie" tells the story of the comic duo starting in 1937 when they reached their peak of global popularity, albeit when Laurel was hardly on speaking terms with their long-term producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston).
As you might guess from this, the emotional direction for the film is downwards, but not necessarily in a totally depressing way. The film depicts the duo's tour of Laurel's native country (he was born in Lancashire) and this has its ups as well as its downs.
Not knowing their life story, this is one where when the trailer came on I shut my eyes and plugged my ears so as to avoid spoilers: as such I will say nothing further on the details of the plot.
My wife and I were reminiscing after seeing this flick about how our parents used to crack up over the film antics of Laurel and Hardy. And they were, in their own slapstick way, very funny indeed. The film manages to recreate (impecably) some of their more famous routines and parodies others: their travel trunk gallops to the bottom of the station steps, mimicking the famous scenes with a piano from 1932's "The Music Box". "Do we really need that trunk" Hardy deadpans to Laurel.
There are four star turns at the heart of the film and they are John C. Reilly as Ollie; Steve Coogan as Stan; Shirley Henderson (forever to be referenced as "Moaning Myrtle") as Ollie's wife Lucille and Nina Arianda (so memorable as the 'pointer outer' in the 'Emperor's New Clothes' segment of "Florence Foster Jenkins") as Stan's latest wife Ida.
Coogan and Reilly do an outstanding job of impersonating the comic duo. Both are simply brilliant, playing up to their public personas when visible but subtly delivering similar traits in private. Of the two, John C. Reilly's performance is the most memorable: he IS Oliver Hardy. Not taking too much away from the other performance, but there are a few times when Coogan poked through the illusion (like a Partridge sticking its head out from a Pear Tree you might say).
Henderson and Arianda also add tremendous heart to the drama, and Arianda's Ida in particular is hilarious. Also delivering a fabulous supporting role is Rufus Jones as the famous impressario Bernard Delfont: all smarm and Machiavellian chicanery that adds a different shape of comedy to the film.
Overall it's one of those pleasant and untaxing cinema experiences that older audiences in particular will really enjoy. However, the film's far from perfect in my view: the flash-forwards/flash-backs I felt made the story bitty and disjointed; and ultimately the life story of the duo doesn't have a huge depth of drama in it to amaze or excite, the way that 2004's "Beyond the Sea" (the biopic of Bobby Darin) did for example. But the film never gets boring or disappoints.
I'd like to say that the script by Jeff Pope ("Philomena") is historically accurate, but a look at the wikipedia entries for the pair show that it was far from that. Yes, the tours of the UK and Europe did happen, but over multiple years and the actual events in their lives are telescoped into a single trip for dramatic purposes. But I think the essence of the pair comes across nicely. Laurel's wikipedia entry records a nice death-bed scene that sums up the guy: "Minutes before his death, he told his nurse that he would not mind going skiing, and she replied that she was not aware that he was a skier. "I'm not," said Laurel, "I'd rather be doing that than this!" A few minutes later, the nurse looked in on him again and found that he had died quietly in his armchair."
"Stan and Ollie" has a few preview screenings before the New Year, but goes on UK general release on January 11th 2018. Recommended.
(For the full graphical review, check out One Mann's Movies on the web and Facebook. Thanks).
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