with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
I had gone to the movie expecting to be impressed by John C. Reilly’s performance as Ollie, since I had already enjoyed his acting in the Sisters Brothers where for once he could show his range in the lead role, and in the silly Holmes and Watson movie where he demonstrated how much acting is play with Will Ferrell. He is equally good as Ollie, with prosthetics to make him look perhaps a bit fleshier even than the real thing, but mostly in soulfully sad ways as the team face their decline. I was not prepared for the depth of feeling that Steve Coogan brought to his role as Stan Laurel.
Laurel and Hardy, the peerless comic duo, were popular during the early days of cinema, when audiences were satisfied with short movies, even in the age of sound. Once the movies grew longer, the drawn out scripts did not suit them as well. Laurel was the brains of the outfit, writing the bits, but without Hardy’s counterbalance: his obesity to Laurel’s reed like slenderness, his slow burns to Laurel’s hapless goofiness and contrition, his patience to Laurel’s quickness to solve things in exactly the wrong way, Laurel was quite lost. The two needed to work together for their comic brilliance to shine.
The screenplay, based on Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours by A. J. Marriott, follows the tour of stage performances they made after the second world war, a reunion comeback after a rift that results from a contract dispute with director Hal Roach. Ostensibly the tour is meant as a prelude to their shooting a movie based on Robin Hood. Getting to that point takes them through nearly empty theaters and rundown hotels until with a bit of nudging by their producer they do a lot of publicity and begin to fill bigger and better theaters on their way to London.
In London they meet their wives, perfectly cast Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. The women want the best for their men, so when Hardy’s health begins to fail, a crisis ensues.
The re-enactments of their best bits, including a sublime dance, are lovingly staged and photographed. There is a double door routine, basically an elaborate sight gag, that makes everyone in the theater laugh.
It takes an argument, as happens so often in the longest marriages, to bring the couple together and discover their love for each other. The script depicts the stormy relationship between the two leads. Most poignant is the line: “I loved us.” spoken by Laurel when he is explaining how the separation felt.
The movie made me hungry to watch some of the original movies which are easy to find on youtube. Steve Coogan I think of as a comic actor, perfect in the Trip movies with Rob Brydon, riffing on this and that in the car as they make their way to one restaurant after another. There is the Alan Partridge persona. He did show some acting chops in Philomena with Judi Dench. But this movie has him in a much more complex part, where he has the restless energy of a writer, the pathos of a man put down by the snobby movie industry which has lost any interest in his genius. And as a friend and partner to Oliver Hardy, he shows the dependence that comes with any great partnership. Reilly is good as always, but the two of them together rise up and take inspiration from the older duo.