The Laurel and Hardy movie has divided opinion, but this is only to be expected. Fans of the comedy duo knew it was an incredibly big ask to attempt to do justice to a biographic which aims to depict the pair in the twilight of their glittering Hollywood careers. After all, Laurel and Hardy were consummate comedic craftsmen, so not only did the actors need to look and sound like the duo, they needed to perfect their timing and skills.
A masterpiece of caricatureand impersonation
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan both undoubtedly pull off the task of impersonation superbly, infact,it would be almost impossible to conceive of better actors to play Stan and Ollie. It is obvious that Reilly and Coogan have studied their heroes for many years, as even the most minor of nuances and behaviours is woven in effortlessly.
The movie is set in the early 1950sin a period towards the end of Laurel and Hardy’s career, during a tour of Britain, after the poorly received release of their last feature-length film, Atoll K. But we first see the effect of the costumes, makeup, and suitability of Reilly and Coogan on the set of the classic 1937 movie, Way Out West. Already major stars by this point, Stan is coming to the end of his contract with Hal Roachand is considering his options. But no sooner do we see a glimpse into the behind the scenes banter between shoots, then the pair kick into action to perform their now infamous dance in front of a bustling backdrop of horse and carts and men and women going about their business in a wild west township. The manner by which the pair switch on the charm is uncanny, as filming starts to roll.
Fast forward 16 years
The movie then jumps forward 16 years to the early stages of a British tour. Audience numbers are low, but over time, the popularity of the shows gain traction as Stan and Ollie win over the public, such isthe persistence of their talent and charisma, and their willingness to work hard. Stan truly believes that many good years remain ahead of them, as he tries to secure funds for a new film on the theme of Robin Hood, to be shot at the end of the tour.
For many who grew up watching their films, even decades after their deaths, it may come as something of a surprise to know that they were anything other than revered for their entire lives. However, in their later years, not only were they short on money, they were in poor health (especially Ollie), and out of fashion in the United States. Abbott and Costello had taken their mantle in the cinemas, and Norman Wisdom was the start of the stage; times had moved on.
Balancing comedy and tragedy
One of the wonderful aspects of the film is how well Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson play the wives of Stan and Ollie, Ida and Lucille, almost mirroring the relationships of their husbands. What comes across is how devoted, loving, and protective they were towards their spouses, and how fiercely they would defend their husband’s honour. Russian-born Ida has some of the best lines in the film, with her wit and bluntness almost refreshing against a backdrop of entertainment industry sycophants.
The movie balances the comedic and tragic superbly, touching on the sad aspects such as their failing health and the undertone of distrust which continues to erode their relationship. That misgiving was rooted in a ‘betrayal’ when Ollie made the 1939 film, Zenobia, without his sidekick – a fact that Stan cannot forget. In one scene which highlights this tension, Stan says, “I loved us’, and Ollie replies: “But you never loved me”.
As the film progresses, the toll of the duo’s relentless workload becomes increasingly apparent, and in doing so brings matters to a head, forcing Stan and Ollie to transcend their aged disagreement.
It’s a wrap
The movie is a perfect tribute to Laurel and Hardy, which celebrates their enduring talent while not shying away from the sad realities away from the stage or camera. If anything, it will make you want to watch the Laurel and Hardy back catalogue as soon as you get home, but with over 100 films, this may take some time. Enjoy.
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