‘Stan & Ollie’ features great performances, but plays it safe

Jan 25, 2019, 2:03 PM

Before there was an Abbott and Costello, a Martin and Lewis, or a Tom and Curley, there was Laurel and Hardy. Hollywood’s greatest comic duo starred in over a hundred films and were the kings of the box-office for two decades, between the 1920s and 1940s.

Englishman Stan Laurel and American Oliver Hardy became international icons for their slapstick humor and are credited with having influenced the likes of Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, Marcel Marceau, and Samuel Beckett.

But can this long-ago comedy team interest today’s 21st century audiences? A new movie called “Stan & Ollie” should be a good test case.

But then again, maybe not. “Stan & Ollie” is not, as one might expect, a story about the meteoric rise to fame of this most unlikely pairing. Neither is the movie designed to let audiences luxuriate in the glory years of Laurel and Hardy, allowing us to experience lots and lots of re-creations of their exquisitely rendered skits. Nor is the movie very interested in their creative process, in how those famous skits were created and refined to such perfection.

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Daringly, the movie focuses instead on their declining years. By 1953, their movie careers had long ago hit a wall and they were forced to take their act on the road, touring some of the shabbier live theatre stages throughout England. This context gives the movie a rather reflective and melancholic air.

But it also allows the film to pay more attention to the nature of the personal relationship between the two men rather than to the show-biz pizzazz of their careers. Hence the title “Stan & Ollie,” rather than “Laurel & Hardy,” I presume.

Laurel wrote most all of their material and handled a lot of their business dealings as well. The two men did have a falling out over a long-ago contract dispute that festered for years …

“We had a good thing going but you had a chip on your shoulder because I did a picture with someone else,” Hardy says. “You betrayed me, you betrayed our friendship. You’re hollow,” Laurel responds.

But in the end, they both realize they can’t live fully without each other.

“You’re not leaving, you understand? The show must go on.”

Laurel and Hardy could not be better served by the film’s casting choices, with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the thin man and the fat man, respectively. Coogan is a master impersonator and he has Stan Laurel’s clueless bemusement on stage down pat. Reilly needs a fat suit to attain Hardy’s girth but nicely captures the vulnerability beneath all of Ollie’s on-stage bluster.

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These two great performers are underserved, however, by a script that stays strictly on the surface. There are hints that the comedians’ lives were far more complicated than presented (What about all their marriages? Was there any rivalry between the two? How bad were their finances and why?). But the film insists on playing it so safe, or simple, that it seems more reverential than revealing.

The result is a sweet, sentimental and ultimately shallow look at two life-long friends facing their own mortality.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

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‘Stan & Ollie’ features great performances, but plays it safe