At last, a Laurel and Hardy biopic, right? Seriously, is this not the past year's most improbable project? We're talking about a comedy act that came to fame during the silent era and peaked in the 1930s. Which makes the median age of a Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy enthusiast, I don't know, like 90. Right up John C. Reilly's demographic!
The actor is, of course, fresh off the biggest flop of his professional life. Holmes & Watson solved the mystery of how to nail a solid 10 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Reilly appears here with Steve Coogan and a series of fat suits in the latest from Filth director Jon S. Baird. The script by Jeff Pope chronicles the 1953 variety hall tour of Great Britain that Laurel (Coogan) and Hardy (Reilly) undertook to jump-start their stalled careers.
The pleasant surprise is that Stan & Ollie isn't the total snore it sounds like. The film draws its main interest from the respect and fondness that the comic icons are known to have felt for each other, as convincingly conveyed by the two leads.
Under contract to producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), Laurel and Hardy were the biggest comedy act on the planet. Laurel wrote and directed most of their 107 movies. Hardy was a master of physical comedy. Both were underpaid and poorly treated, as we see when Laurel attempts to negotiate better terms. Roach made sure their contracts expired at different times, so each had to resign to work with the other. Neither saw a cent from TV reruns.
After an opening scene set in the duo's heyday, the film fast-forwards nearly 20 years. When they travel to England, both men are in their sixties, have been married multiple times and hope a successful tour will convince Columbia Pictures to make their comeback project, a comedy about Robin Hood. At first, the crowds are small and the venues shabby. The pair work overtime doing publicity, and by the time they get to London, they're the toast of the town.
Stan & Ollie isn't going to set records or come up much in awards conversation. It's a tender, slightly melancholy movie about the devotion the two men had to their art and each other. There's a wistful undercurrent, an awareness of the inevitability of endings. So, you know, not the feel-good film of the year.
Both leads do an uncanny job of channeling their characters, but Reilly is particularly poignant as the aging Hardy. Heavier than ever and suffering from heart problems, he found performing literally hazardous to his health. There are scenes in which the pair do their trademark dance, and Hardy appears lighter than air. Then the camera closes in, and we see beads of sweat on his brow and panic in his eyes.
Not that Pope's script doesn't lighten up occasionally. My favorite line comes when the two are catching each other up on their latest relationship catastrophes. Pauperized by alimony payments, Laurel quips, "I'm never getting married again. I'm just going to find a woman I don't like and buy her a house."
This could've turned out considerably worse. Chaplin (1992) and The Three Stooges (2012) certainly did. Baird's film fares better by focusing on a small chapter in the story of larger-than-life legends. By making that the final chapter, he achieves unexpected emotional heft. Luckily for Reilly — and the audience — a punctuation mark is all Holmes & Watson and Stan & Ollie have in common.