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Sunday
Oct212018

Middleburg Sneak: "Stan & Ollie"s gentle charms

Stan & Ollie had its world premiere in London today and we caught a sneak peek at the Middleburg Festival...

by Nathaniel R

The original odd couple of screen comedy, Laurel & Hardy, had several familiar gestures that delighted audiences in the 1930s. Thin Brit Stan Laurel's main move was to scratch his head comically from the top, his hand like a curious clawed hat. Rotund American Oliver Hardy's sometimes did a fey little wave, hand tight against the body, the fingers doing all the wiggling work. Why these were funny to audiences at the time will possibly be a mystery to contemporary audiences.

Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, is a brisk well-paced movie about the legendary early-cinema comedy act in their waning days. It doesn't attempt to explain their appeal to us in 2018 but merely exists in the space between then and now...

Though the movie takes place largely in the mid '50s, that space is essentially contemporary since the duo were already a nostalgia act when the story takes place. That's not unlike the space the film occupies, crafting old movie nostalgia into drama as we watch the exhausted duo attempt a wobbly comeback which they hope will lead to another movie contract to reinvigorate their fame and fortune.

You could actually argue that Stan & Ollie is a double nostalgia act, perhaps unintentionally, since it moves and feels so much like an early 90s arthouse pic that it might have worn the Miramax logo back in the day. This is not a criticism, per se, since there's room at the movies for many styles of storytelling. But it is kind of a surprise given that it comes from Jon S baird, the director of Filth (2013) and other entertainments that are a lot less cozy than this one. But that old school approach might well be the perfect choice for this picture, since its gentle rhythms, polished if unexciting look, and predictable arcs are as comfortingly familiar as... well, as the aging entertainers of any era are to the people who grew up watching them.

Steve Coogan is the soul of the picture as Stan, the bossier and more business-minded of the famous duo. He worries acutely about their future and their legacy. John C Reilly is the heart as Ollie (fat-suited up and prosthetically modified but thankfully still expressive) who wants to be loved and is eager to please. So much so that he once betrayed Laurel to work with another comic per the studio's wishes... a old grudge that keeps popping up whenever things aren't going well.

Coogan and Reilly do fine work, with a nicely judged but never easy chemistry and we're also treated to a reminder that Reilly really can sing beautifully (hi Chicago). But the secret weapon of the movie arguably isn't Stan & Ollie, but their wives Ida and Lucille (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson). During a party gone awry when the women bicker (they're less friends than reluctant business partners -- the business of keeping their famous spouses going), Laurel & Hardy's agent quips to confused onlookers that you get two comedy duos for the price of one. The agent isn't meant to be a voice of reason, here, but he speaks the truth.

Shirley's trademark squeak of a voice is a nice contract to her fierce protectiveness of that easy to manipulate husband of hers. And just as she did in Florence Foster Jenkins, Arianda wrings huge laughs from a small supporting role by imbuing it with big personality, expert timing and in this case surprising nuance. On the page Ida might have read like a cold and jaded harridan, but Arianda somehow imbues her with both soul and the practicality that comes with diminished dreams. It's just enough to undercut that sharp tongue and make you love her and know that she loves Stan deeply without her ever saying so. When will filmmakers give this woman the star vehicle she so richly deserves?

While Stan & Ollie is less than challenging, it's light on its feet, and doesn't overstay its welcome as it tugs at the heart strings and occassionally tickles the old school funny bone. We might have entered this biopic mimicking Laurel's signature move, scratching our heads quizzically as to why this particular biopic was made. The movie gently waves back, with an impish grin, with no real answer but just hoping to be adored anyway. It gets its wish. 

 

Grade: B/B+
Oscar Chances: Hmmm, maybe the Globes?  Oh and Best Makeup and Hair at the Oscars wouldn't be out of bounds given the visual success of John C Reilly's fattened face.

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Reader Comments (7)

Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson? Can't get enough of them!

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Issit gonna release stateside this yr?

I tink it'll get sum Bafta luv, on top o GG

I totally can't recognize Reilly!! He really dissolves into the fat suit!

Btw this, The Sisters Brothers n Holmes n Watson, he's really having a bumper yr!! 😁

October 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Claran -- i believe it's getting that dread last weekend of the year new year's even style platform release where so many Oscar hopefuls go to die.

October 22, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I absolutely adore Laurel & Hardy and have ever since I was a kid. Don't get me started. I think now what makes them so funny to me is that Laurel is too dumb to know he's gay and Hardy is too dumb to know he's not. Luckily, it sounds like the movie does them justice.

October 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

I'm an old-school L&R fan, and while I adore John C. Reilly, I'm kinda dreading this film.

Oh, I'm not that hardcore (not like my oldest filmmaking/film collecting friend, who was prominently featured in a New York Times article about the Sons of the Desert a few weeks ago)… but I'm not at all convinced that this film is necessary or worthy. And as someone who's owned and run prints of L&R shorts for 45 years, my observation is that their original films are often a tough sell to younger folks, because their deliberate, measured, VERY slow style can feel exhaustingly drawn-out by modern standards.

OTOH, I like that Chaplin biopic with Robert Downey, Jr. - despite its many inaccuracies and fictionalizations - so maybe I'll like this one too.

October 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Best Actor isn't sewn up just yet,Rosamund Pike is getting raves and yet no one has her in their predictions.Why is that?

October 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I’ve only seen a few of Laurel and Hardy, years ago, but I liked them and thought they were sweet. It’s their friendship that seems important. Visually, each character alone could be easily dismissed, but together they have ballast. It’s like a Partnership of the Unchosen.

I like that they have fun and adventures together. They reminded me of the kids stories of Frog and Toad.

October 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

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