Paul Whitington's film of the week: Comedy duo are a Hardy act to follow
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly revive the magic of Stan and Oliver in this warm and funny biopic, says Paul Whitington
When I was growing up, Laurel and Hardy were still a thriving cultural currency. Decades after their deaths, they were everywhere: their classic short comedies were constantly shown on television, there was a cartoon series, and the boys even had a posthumous top 10 hit in the mid-1970s with Trail Of The Lonesome Pine.
These days, it's entirely possible that there are people under the age of 30 who've never heard of them. They're never on TV, aren't feted in retrospectives like Chaplin or Buster Keaton or the Marx Brothers, and some critics have even gone so far as to dismiss their comedy as simplistic slapstick. Big mistake because, at their best, Stan and Ollie were nothing short of sublime.
They had a comic chemistry that verged on the poetic, the pratfall routines orchestrated by Stan Laurel were note-perfect absurdist ballets, and there was something oddly touching about the way the boys, battle though they might, ultimately depended on each other. This elusive magic is beautifully captured by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly in Jon S Baird's Stan & Ollie, a witty and warm-hearted biopic that finds the boys in the twilight of their careers. No prizes for guessing who plays who.
It's 1952, their glory days are long gone, and Laurel and Hardy have arrived in northern England to begin a concert tour. In a prologue we discover how the duo fell out in the 1930s over a contract row with their miserly studio boss Hal Roach: they worked apart for several years, but without each other, the magic was gone. Now they're uneasily reunited, and the carrot at the end of this gruelling live tour is the possibility of a new Laurel and Hardy feature film based on the legend of Robin Hood.
Stan (Coogan) is full of new ideas for the movie, but Ollie (Reilly) seems tired and easily out of puff: his heart is dicky and his partner is beginning to wonder if an arduous tour is really the best thing for him. The crowds are initially disappointing too, but as the old pros get into their stride, public enthusiasm grows, and by the time they reach London, they've sold out a string of nights at a West End theatre.
Trouble brews when their wives (Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, both excellent) arrive in London, and proceed to bicker their way around the plush confines of the Savoy Hotel. And meanwhile, Stanley is worried that their film's supposed producer isn't returning his calls.
Nicely pitched, if understandably sentimental, Stan & Ollie is slightly plotted and relies heavily on the quality of the two central performances. In this regard, Coogan and Reilly faced a complex challenge: not only had they to catch the clownish subtleties of the Laurel and Hardy routines, but they also had to give us some idea who the men who performed them really were.
Reilly plays Oliver 'Babe' Hardy as the easy-going southern gent he was, and has all his wonderful stage ticks down to a T - the delicate hand gestures, tie fiddles, infuriated glares towards the audience and that magnificent 'hmmh!' sound he used to make whenever Stan's idiocy had particularly exasperated him.
Babe was a charmer alright, but also a chronic people-pleaser whose need to be loved didn't always help the duo's cause. Stan Laurel was the brains behind the double act's success, a deep-thinking Lancastrian who'd sailed to America on the same boat as Charlie Chaplin and earned his stripes in Vaudeville before heading west to Hollywood.
It's his tenacity that keeps the act together through the ups and downs of the British tour, and all the time he's thinking up new routines. "That's funny, isn't it?" he says to Hardy after enchanting him with a brilliantly simple routine involving a pair of shoes and a curtain, but his sense of physical comedy is so good that he shouldn't need to ask.
Coogan inhabits the character beautifully, catching Laurel's quietness and physical grace, but also the steely inner resolve that got him to the top in the first place. When he and Reilly break into one of Laurel and Hardy's endearingly daft dance routines, it's genuinely moving and, in the end, this film is a sort of love story. When the real Oliver Hardy died, Stan was too upset to go to his funeral, and years later was still dreaming up routines for a double act that no longer existed.