“Stan & Ollie” follows the last act of the most famous comedy team of the 1930s as they fade into obscurity during a comedy stage tour of the UK and Ireland in the early 1950s.
Say what you will about the state of current stand-up comics, but performing duos have not been in vogue for nearly half a century. In addition to the British Stan Laurel and his American counterpart Oliver Hardy, other famous lineups included Burns and Allen, The Marx Brothers (actually four or three depending on which movie you remember), The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Nichols and May, and the swan song of such acts with the 1960s popularity of Rowan and Martin and The Smothers Brothers.
In the film, Steve Coogan plays Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Hardy. Both of the actors have mastered the various moves and ticks of their characters to the point that the movie’s depiction goes beyond simply copycat moves to truly unique performances.
Stan was thin, tall and ungainly ,while Oliver was self-important, plump and often as much of a bully as a companion. They were at their best with slapstick gags written by Laurel. Although they worked in silent cinema as solo artists, once they united as a team they were inseparable.
At least up until a point, which is the crux that “Stan & Ollie” revolves around. While most of the film takes place during the UK tour, there’s a brief sequence early on that shows Laurel clashing with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over artistic control.
While as a concept “Stan & Ollie” seems bulletproof, the actual movie proves to be slow paced, and, more often than not, hackneyed. The two break up and make up all to little dramatic affect. Parts of their stage show are reproduced with a fine comic finesse, but the dramatic action that surrounds the gags fails to hold your attention.
Coogan has proved to be a fine mimic — just witness his impersonations of personalities as diverse as Michael Caine and Roger Moore in “The Trip” series of films. Imitations alone don’t, however, make a worthy film.
Likewise, Reilly easily sinks into his role with the aid of facial prosthetics that emphasize Hardy’s weight and double chin. Facial prosthetics can be a double-edged sword. Sure, they make the actor look like someone else, but they also lack the definition that real skin has to emotional gestures. Reilly’s throat never moves in tune with his face, and that’s not the way real skin behaves. (Another example of un-emotive reaction can be seen in the prosthetics that Mike Myers wear in his cameo in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)
Shirley Henderson plays Lucille Hardy in the film, and Nina Arianda plays Ida Laurel. Both women are saddled with lame dialogue as they attempt to coddle and pacify their famous spouses.
“Stan & Ollie” opens wide this weekend. If this lackluster movie at least jumpstarts film fans unfamiliar with the pair’s legacy to examine their classic films, so much the better.