‘Stan & Ollie’ goes beyond the laughs

Grade: A-

Were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy the greatest comedy duo in film history?

Childlike, unimposing Stan Laurel was a Brit, the lantern-jawed, cartoon-faced son of a theater manager and an actress, born in Lancashire in 1890 and trained in the music hall, where he honed his skills in song, dance and comedy. For a time he worked as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy, and he arrived in the United States on the same ship as Chaplin and broke into film along with him.Oliver Hardy was an oversized, unusually graceful American. Born in Georgia in 1892, Ollie studied music and broke into early film in the East before moving to Los Angeles and being teamed with Laurel by Hal Roach Studios supervising director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup”). As they say, it was a bowler-hatted match made in comedy heaven.Stan was the sweet-souled, easily upset man-child, while Ollie was the big, angry, pompous bully, who looked oddly like an enormous baby. “Stan & Ollie,” which was directed by Jon S. Baird (“Filth”) and written by Jeff Pope, who co-wrote “Philomena” with Steve Coogan, co-stars Manchester, England-born Coogan and American John C. Reilly, who has had a great run recently and triumphs here, as Stan and Ollie.

The casting turns out to be picture perfect.The film begins in 1937 while they shoot “Way Out West,” but leaps 16

years forward, near the end of the their working partnership. Embarking upon a European tour, arranged by an incompetent agent (a marvelous Rufus Jones), the two find their stops are sparsely attended at first. They’re on tour because they need the money, especially Ollie, who gambles and has a string of ex-wives. Coogan, who is usually cast as the cad or villain, brings a sweet, gentle aura to the boyish, big-eared Stan, but also a backbone of steel when it comes to his work and art.

Reilly gives Ollie a soft spot, especially for his partner, beneath the hot, sweaty temper and unhealthy excess of food and drink. (Reilly wears elaborate prostheses for the role.) In spite of his flaws, Ollie, also known as Babe, is a comic wizard in front of the camera. Stan, who also writes and directs, pens the duo’s routines. Babe brings the spark.

The film re-creates a hospital bit they performed onstage on the tour. Eventually, the two receive a hero’s welcome in Ireland, complete with church bells ringing their theme song. For the most part, the film gives us a glimpse behind the scenes, where the two men and their wives, who are played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda and are this film’s second “act,” socialize and frequently bicker.

When they were in their heyday, we learn, Stan wanted to leave Roach Studios (trailing film history stardust, Danny Huston plays comedy icon Hal Roach in flashbacks) and produce and own their films. Ollie was afraid to strike out alone and preferred the “stability” of a Roach contract. In large part, this is why the actors would earn little from their library of work, including “Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland,” which became a staple of 1950s and ’60s television. They continue to fight about this on the tour.

Stan also resents the fact that Ollie tried to “go solo” with another partner and failed miserably. “Stan & Ollie” may not be as funny as “The Music Box.” But it offers a deeply felt, incisive look at one of film history’s greatest comic teams near its bittersweet end. After Ollie’s death, Stan continues to write material for the duo, but he never performs again. Cue the Cuckoo Song.

Source:THE BOSTON HERALD ‘Stan & Ollie’ goes beyond the laughs

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