Thursday, January 17, 2019

The last days of a great comic duo

Stan & Ollie reveals Laurel and Hardy in a moment of decline.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were great comic movie stars who established themselves as a team during the late 1920s and remained active for almost two decades. Laurel, an Englishman, and Hardy, an American, became famous for beautifully sustained slapstick routines that revolved around the key attributes of each of their comic characters. The addled Stan played against the always exasperated Ollie.

Fortunately for my generation, Laurel and Hardy films outlasted the duo’s prime, becoming staples of 1950s television, at least where I grew up, New Jersey within reach of New York TV.

I'm not sure how the accepted wisdom evolved, but Laurel came to be recognized as the reigning genius of the comic duo, an obsessive thinker when it came to inventing routines and working out their intricacies. Laurel may have been the brains of the outfit, but for most of us, it's impossible to imagine Laurel without Hardy.

The movie Stan & Ollie pays fitting tribute to the comic duo, focusing on them mostly at the end of their careers. With their film opportunities radically diminished, Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) travel to England. They hope to use stage appearances to polish their act while Stan seeks funding for a new movie.

The atmosphere surrounding the trip isn't exactly buoyant. Ollie's health is fragile and the two haven't worked together for a while.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with any of the Trip movies starring Coogan and Rob Brydon that Coogan is an accomplished impressionist. He makes a fine Laurel, the muddled, incompetent on-screen comic whose calculations dominate his off-screen life. He always seems to be working on something.

Reilly delivers the movie's biggest surprise. Thanks to some prodigious make-up, Reilly has taken on Hardy's look and his overweight huffing. He also masters Hardy's signature moves: from fiddling with the ends of his tie to delivering some of Ollie's trademark lines about how the clueless Stan has landed him in "another fine mess."

Working from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, director John S. Baird sets most of the movie in various down-scale British theaters in 1953. It may not be the limelight, but the two carry on, and the actors make it clear that once the curtain rises, Stan and Ollie give even the smallest audiences their best.

Baird doesn't shrink from the sadness of the situation. Hardy feels the pain that he believes stems from not being loved by Stan. In this reading of the story, Stan loved the act more than he loved the man.

While waiting for news of their pending movie, Laurel and Hardy also await the arrival of their wives, played with deft comic touches by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson.

Despite some tension between Laurel and Hardy, the movie never develops a hard edge, perhaps because Baird tempers the film's melancholy with appropriate affection for two screen legends.

I'm fearful that younger audiences will not seek out the modestly made Stan & Ollie. That would be a shame because if they did, they'd probably hasten to YouTube, where they could discover the joys of Stan & Ollie's comedy and learn something about the fleeting nature of fame, even for those who scale the highest of movie heights.

No comments: