Before the picture started I was thinking about older celebrity biographies that didn't work out ("The Buster Keaton Story," "The Eddie Cantor Story") and others that succeeded despite taking massive liberties with historical facts ("The Jolson Story," "The Buddy Holly Story"). Well, I thought, I'll keep an open mind and look at "Stan and Ollie" as a fictional, larger-than-life show.
Two words of advice, Laurel & Hardy fans: SEE IT.
The producers have taken extreme pains to set the scenes just so, with the decor, the props, the wardrobe, and the general atmosphere ringing true. The re-enactments of actual events are substantially accurate, but the screenwriter has juggled the chronology around for dramatic effect, so things don't happen in their actual order. The early scenes, for example, show the older Laurel & Hardy playing to small audiences in tiny theaters, and the final scenes show full houses in massive theaters -- in fact, the reverse was true, with the venues getting humbler as the years passed. At least one character is a composite of different people: Stan's self-effacing wife Ida is portrayed like one of his former wives, the strident Countess Illeana. The biggest dramatic liberty, seen in the "Stan and Ollie" trailers, has Stan and Babe arguing and battling. These scenes are well played and staged, but have no basis in fact. These scenes are more like the Martin & Lewis story, where the easygoing partner withstands the driven partner's moodiness and finally sounds off. The 97-minute feature should not be judged by these few inaccurate minutes.
We've all seen celebrity impersonations that are good, bad, or indifferent. I'm happy to report that Steve Coogan is outstanding as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly is astonishing as Oliver Hardy. The voices, the body language, the small gestures, the exaggerated "stage" personalities -- both actors are right on the money. This is no shallow, variety-show imitation. It's a surprisingly deep, heartfelt, and sincere portrayal of Laurel & Hardy, on stage and off.
"Stan and Ollie" opens in late December, and if you like Laurel & Hardy at all, have no fear -- you'll enjoy it. Will you recognize certain events in the story? Probably. Will you grin at the re-creations of the team's sketches? Almost certainly. But will you laugh your head off? No. This is an intimate story with only a few principals, and you might find yourself choked up more than once. Critics have called the relationship between the "Stan" and "Ollie" screen characters as the greatest love story of the movies. This new movie demonstrates it.
I hope Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are both nominated for Academy Awards as "Best Actor" -- and I hope they both win.