“Genial” is the word for Stan & Ollie. Even though they remained household names for years after their heyday due to TV reruns of their many comedy hits, Laurel & Hardy are no doubt little-known to millennials. But the lovely performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly should lure a decent number of fans to this warm account of the team’s final live performance tours through the British Isles in the early 1950s, thereby likely sparking a degree of renewed interest in one of Hollywood’s most successful comedy teams.
“We’re getting older, but we’re not done yet,” Hardy, the fat one, proclaims early on, although, due to his weight and related health issues, he’s closer to the end than he’d like to think. A popular screen team since 1926, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy specialized in slow-burn comedy routines that typically saw the derby-hatted duo sink ever-deeper into exasperating predicaments, with the slight, bewildered, borderline infantile Laurel usually leading the duo into trouble from which the smugly superior Hardy haughtily thinks he can extricate them. Built with a deliberation that at its best was both agonizing and hilarious, the humor almost invariably stemmed from the gradual compounding of multiple dilemmas one on top of another.
Working for producer Hal Roach from 1926-1940, the pair made dozens of shorts and 27 features. But when they left Roach, their status declined, as plainly delineated at the beginning of Jeff Pope’s creditable but overly expository script. By the early 1950s, having been supplanted as the big screen’s kings of comedy by Abbott and Costello, the duo was nearly broke. So they headed for the U.K. on a tour of live music-hall performances with the hope of launching a new movie with promoter/producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), whose abiding interest at the time was promoting the home-bred comedian Norman Wisdom.
Even for those well acquainted with the looks and behavior of the two performers, it takes no time at all to accept Coogan and Reilly as Laurel and Hardy. Born, like Laurel, in Lancashire, England, Coogan is more conventionally good-looking than the man he’s playing, but he slips neatly into the role of the duo’s brains and writer. He seems an eminently decent and normal man whose expertise is playing a slow-witted simpleton.
For his part, Reilly is having a career-high year, with his outstanding dominant performance in Jacques Audiard’s Western The Sisters Brothers and now this wonderful turn, in which he all but disappears into the Hardy persona. Outfitted with some extra padding and prosthetically enhanced with an ample double chin, Reilly excels at conveying the extreme politesse, exaggerated gestures, self-satisfied condescension and inevitable exasperation that were always part of the Hardy shtick. Much of the time, you feel like you’re beholding the real duo, so thoroughly conceived are the actors’ physicality and performances.
Arriving in England in 1953, the comics find themselves booked into less-than-deluxe accommodations at Newcastle, and their initial shows are sparsely attended. Delfont (born Boris Winogradsky in Russia, brother of future tycoon Lew Grade and later to become Lord Delfont) proves slippery and evasive when it comes to money and support for the script Laurel is writing, Robin Hood.
But eventually the houses improve, and so does the film with the arrival of the comics’ wives as the boys prepare for their long-awaited two-week engagement in London. Laurel’s wife is a force of Russian nature named Ida (Nina Arianda), a dyed-blonde whirlwind with less than zero tolerance for fools who seldom has a good word to say about anyone but always tends to the team’s welfare. With her brash assertiveness and bold effrontery, Arianda steals everything in sight.
But equally effective in her own way is Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s wife Lucille, a bird-like creature with a squeaky little voice whose tiny stature next to her hulking husband creates a constantly amusing disparity. Lucille and Ida soon emerge as a contrasting comedy team of their own, creating a neat parallel act to that of the men.
Even as the team’s fortune improves — their foursome is put up at the deluxe Savoy Hotel and the London fortnight is SRO — the feeling gathers that this is likely the boys’ last hurrah. The imagined film is not to be, and it’s not surprising when Hardy’s health takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Like all old troopers, they’d like to go out with their boots on, but sanity prevails, not that, in the end, it will prolong Hardy’s life for long.
By the time of the touching conclusion, one has come to like and care about these sweet old guys a good deal. Everything the film has to offer is obvious and on the surface, its pleasures simple and sincere under the attentive guidance of director Jon S. Baird; these good men have their differences but well understand that whatever they might have accomplished individually would never have remotely equaled what they were able to do together. This is clear from the fact that, after Hardy’s death, Laurel never acted again despite many offers, even if he did continue to write.
Coogan and Reilly not only excel at creating convincing impressions of one of the most famous comic teams of the last century, but they do an uncanny job of recreating a handful of their famous routines, which today mostly play as mild yet expertly timed delights.
There was little that was bold or adventurous about Laurel and Hardy’s comedy, which is doubtless why their films have not been rediscovered by younger generations over the past half-century; unusually for top comics, their work was benign, not subversive. But even if it only occasionally provokes big laughs, this sweet, small film makes you smile most of the way through, which may be a more uncommon feat.
Production companies: Sonesta Film, Fable Pictures
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
Producer: Faye Ward
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: John Paul Kelly
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Editors: Una Ni Dhonghaile, Billy Sneddon
Music: Rolfe Kent
Prosthetics makeup designer: Mark Coulier
Casting: Andy Pryor
Venue: London Film Festival