Director: Jon S. Baird
Writer: Jeff Pope
Stars: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson & Nina Arianda
I’m from the generation that grew up watching Laurel & Hardy reruns on TV. The classic shorts were shown on Saturday mornings and in the evenings on BBC2 at 6pm as an alternative to the news. Even at a very early age I saw the genius in this duo when most of my friends wouldn’t stoop to watch something that was made in black and white. I started off loving the slapstick antics, but Laurel & Hardy were one of the few acts to transition from silent movies to talkies without missing a beat, and later on I came to love the dialogue too. A favourite line that I still remember from back then is from one of the shorts where they both have nagging wives and Stanley says: “She talks to you like water off a duck’s back.” That, to me, is genius.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to see a movie where these immortal personalities would be recreated. I had seen this tried many times before and the results were always disappointing. Ronnie Barker was a huge L&H fan and there can be no doubting his comedy chops, but when he recreated a classic skit with him as Ollie and Roy Castle as Stan, it fell flat with me.
But anyone who has watched Steve Coogan in The Trip will see his meticulous attention to detail when doing a voice or impression, and he nails Stan Laurel to a tee. Not just the voice and mannerisms, but the physical look as well. It’s either a hell of a make-up job or he lost a lot of weight because he looks nothing like his most famous creation, Alan Partridge. John C. Reilly doesn’t let the side down either, with a perfect representation of Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy. He was coming off the abysmally reviewed Holmes and Watson, released just a few weeks earlier, but what credibility he lost on that movie he more than regains here. It just proves that an actor is only as good as the material he’s got to work with.
The film begins with Stan and Ollie on the set of Way Out West. The duo are not happy that producer Hal Roach is taking the lion’s share of profits from their films when their peers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have much better deals in place. Stan wants to walk out on Roach and try to set themselves up with their own studio, but Ollie, an inveterate gambler on his third divorce and who has just got engaged again, likes the stability of a regular income, no matter how lousy the money is.
The film then cuts to sixteen years later when the duo have lost their star power and are struggling to get a film made. But there is a ray of light. A British producer is trying to find finance for a Robin Hood picture starring Laurel & Hardy, so the duo agree to do a small stage tour of the UK to prove to him that the audiences are still there and that they’ve still got it. There’s smouldering resentment between them over the Roach incident. Stan did walk out on Roach, but Ollie was still under contract and continued to make movies for the tyrant producer, which Stan sees as a betrayal.
In many ways it’s the classic story of the aging boxer who thinks he has one more fight left in him. The duo know their routines inside out, and Coogan and Reilly recreate these better than I have ever seen anyone do them, but the years of physical comedy, his weight issues and his heavy drinking, have left Ollie with bad knees and a dodgy heart. So it’s a case of the spirit being willing, but the body just not being able anymore.
Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda play Ollie and Stan’s wives; two women who really don’t like each other and don’t get along, but are forced to spend a lot of time together because of the bond between their husbands. Their arrival at the Savoy in London is a marvellous piece of ‘business’ as the duo perform a little routine for the cameras in search of any publicity they can get.
The film is best described as bittersweet. The comedy sketches are a joy for any fan to watch, and the banter between the pair when they’re ‘on’ is fantastic. The counterpoint to all this is the resentment going on behind the scenes. They were two very different people; with Stan the workaholic always wanting to rehearse or work on their next script, while Ollie just wants to eat, drink (gamble) and be merry, and sees their collaboration as a job like any other that he wants to clock in and out of when it’s done.
It’s a terrific tale of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars as their fame slips away and their best efforts to hold on to it for as long as possible. The ending may be inevitable, but the journey is filled with laughs and moments of real heart.