3,000 Cheers for “Stan and Ollie”

It’s a testament to how badly I wanted to see Stan and Ollie that it only took me a week and a half (and not a year or ten years) after opening day to see it. By now you’ve already seen the film itself or read the good notices, so this review will come as a redundancy. But I wanted to go on record with my approval lest silence be taken for ambivalence or rejection.

The bottom line is that it’s a terrific movie. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but so rarely are movies of this type done this well and this respectfully that it deserves high praise and much positive reinforcement. Based on A.J. Marriott’s 1993 book Laurel and Hardy: The British ToursStan and Ollie depicts Laurel and Hardy’s final days as a team, a momentous turning point in comedy history. Unable to get any new movies off the ground, the pair are obliged to undertake their third music hall tour of Great Britain and Ireland. Laurel was 63 years old at the time; Hardy was 61, and more grossly overweight than ever. So the tour is not just grueling, but potentially life-threatening. And that’s the crux of it.

Bad bio-pics (which Stan and Ollie is not) tend to be about a litany of facts, which is to say that they are about nothing. Stan and Ollie is a movie about AGING. People love it because it is not just about their comedy heroes; it SAYS something about their comedy heroes and about life in general. Jeff Pope’s script and Jon S. Baird’s direction have resonance. At various moments I felt echoes of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and works by Pinter and Beckett (the latter especially, and that was rewarding in light of the fact that L & H were a clear influence on Waiting for Godot.) Inevitably one thinks too of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, although frankly Stan and Ollie is smarter than that script in every conceivable way. And, this is subtler, but I detected Orson Welles influence — there are several of those long, long tracking shots (it opens on one, reminiscent of the beginning of Touch of Evil) and the theme of aging is naturally at the heart of Chimes at Midnight and The Other Side of the Wind.

In the principal roles Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C. Reilly (under pounds of make-up and prosthetics as Hardy) are spot on. I’m sure the latter is glad of this movie’s good notices in light of the epic savaging of Holmes and Watson, which was released three days before this movie. These guys did their homework in terms of re-enacting the comedy bits, but they also get into the hearts and minds of the characters, and each have several stellar dramatic moments, the sort of thing I’ve never seen either of them do before. They must play sorrow, anger, regret, fatigue, worry, pretty much the entire gamut, and neither of them hits a bum note. And there was danger here. The “sad clown” is a thing, in fact, it is famously considered the acme of kitsch. Laurel and Hardy strenuously avoided that “Chaplin” thing in their own work on purpose, but guys like Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason pretty much impaled themselves on various occasions trying to make their audiences sad. True to form though both Cooper and Reilly use great restraint — powerfully so. The supporting cast are also unexpectedly wonderful, especially Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as the team’s protective, younger wives, and Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfant, the highly manipulative impresario who puts them through their paces.

As we’ve written before, bio-pic is perhaps the hardest genre to get right. We savaged The Greatest Showman for being completely wrong about almost everything; we praise Stan and Ollie for being completely right about almost everything. That said, there were some liberties taken, though most of them seem justifiable from a dramatic standpoint. There were just a handful of things that were incorrect or misleading. For example, the scenes of 2/3 empty houses at the beginning of their tour seem like a fantasy. Laurel and Hardy were both almost universally known and loved after they became famous. And by the early 50s their movies were shown on television. So the idea of them being “has beens” wouldn’t have applied, at least not to this degree. Also, while Hardy did in fact make the 1939 film Zenobia without Laurel, that was not the end of their original partnership as this film implies. They went immediately back to working together after that,and indeed made a dozen additional features. Many of those last movies were their biggest money makers (though not loved much by fans or critics today). And Hardy actually made yet another movie without Laurel, 1949’s The Fighting Kentuckian. Also, I don’t get the impression that Hal Roach was the nasty jerk Danny Huston plays him as in this movie. Wily, and a tough negotiator, no doubt, but also a persuasive guy and the guy who made stars out of the team. In fact, after Zenobia, Laurel and Hardy made three more movies with Roach before moving over to Fox and other major studios.

Lastly the climactic dramatic scene in the film, an emotional argument, while wonderfully written, directed and acted, feels a bit of a fantasy and somewhat out of character for both men. They may well have felt those sentiments and resentments in their hearts, but it was outside of their characters to express them. They were not a bickering “Lewis and Clark” style vaudeville team. They were cordial and professional with each other; to be “personal” with each other in this manner in either anger or affection would be both outside the times and what these guys were like. But it’s also necessary — you can’t make a drama if people don’t say what they feel!

(A couple of other quibbles. There would definitely be no rock ‘n’ roll at a beach resort festival in 1953 or 1954. And a scene in which Laurel stares wistfully at a poster for an Abbott and Costello movie is deceptive, for A&C were also on their way out by the early ’50s. Martin and Lewis were the bigger threat by then, and Laurel, like most great comedians of his generation, had great scorn for Jerry Lewis.)

Did I bawl? Yes, but not all the way through the movie, as I feared I would. But, with great expertise, the filmmakers turned me into a complete, heaving wreck during the film’s final moments. I’ve already written about the poetry of Laurel and Hardy’s dance in Way Out West. How perfect that that moment plays such a central role to this film. This movie gives us slapstick and vaudeville as metaphors for LIFE. How am I not gonna love that?