Stan & Ollie (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Laurel & Hardy during their later years

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First, I must admit that I have never seen any of those old classic Hollywood comedy movies of Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy. Sure, I heard about “Sons of the Desert” (1933) around the time when I became more serious about movies, but that movie and many other Laurel and Hardy movies have somehow eluded me during last two decades, and I am now reminded of that shameful fact again after watching “Stan & Ollie”, which is incidentally one of more enjoyable comedy films which came out during last year.

The movie opens with Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) in the middle of their prime period during the 1930s. While Ollie has been content with their current contract with their Hollywood studio boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston) mainly because of his easygoing lifestyle full of booze, gambling, and ladies, Stan thinks they deserve more payment considering their growing fame and popularity, and this difference between them later leads to a very bitter moment which causes a serious rift between them.

The story moves forward to 1953, and we see Stan and Ollie embarking on their music hall tour in Britain and Ireland. Although their fame and popularity have been fading during recent years, they still can click mostly well with each other on stage, and they surely give some good laughs to their audiences even though the number of their audiences is usually not as high as they hoped. While they diligently go through their tour schedule, Stan keeps working on a number of comic ideas for their possible new comedy film which may get financed someday, and Ollie is certainly willing to give some feedback to those comic ideas.

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Meanwhile, things gradually get better for Stan and Ollie once they agree to do more public promotion as suggested by their tour producer Bernard Delfont (Rufust Jones). While showing more of themselves to the public, they also do their music hall performances more diligently than before, and they consequently get a lot more attention than before when they finally are about to perform in front of many audiences at a big music hall in London.

Of course, there inevitably comes a point where some old resentments between Stan and Ollie are resurfaced, but the screenplay by Jeff Pope, which is inspired by A.J. Marriot’s book “Laurel & Hardy – The British Tours”, wisely does not overplay this conflict between its two main characters while never losing any of its comic spirit, and director Jon S. Baird steadily maintains the lightweight mood of the film as balancing it well between humor and pathos. While we cannot help but amused by how Stan and Ollie constantly push and pull each other whenever they are together, we also see how strong their bond has been despite many bad feelings between them, and several key scenes during the second half of the film are quite poignant because of that.

Above all, the movie is anchored well by its two wonderful lead performers. While wearing heavy makeups for looking chubbier as required, John C. Reilly, who has been one of my favorite character actors since I came to notice him via his supporting role in “The River Wild” (1994), effortlessly immerses himself into his role, and the same thing can be said about Steven Coogan, who drew my attention for the first time via “Around the World for 80 Days” (2004) and then has shown the considerable range of his talent via various films such as “The Trip” (2010) and “Philomena” (2013). Right from the beginning, they are thoroughly believable as their respective characters, and it definitely helps that they effectively complement each other through their effortless chemistry on the screen.

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And I particularly like how Coogan and Reilly deftly modulate the comic interactions between their characters for reflecting their characters’ dramatic arc along the plot. During the early stage performance scenes in the film, Reilly and Coogan deliberately dial down their comic vibe, so their characters really feel like merely going through their routine comedy sketches on the stage, and we are just as mildly amused as the audiences watching that. As their characters gradually get improved with more joy and rapport between them, Coogan and Reilly accordingly look more hilarious as demanded, and I must confess that I could not help but smile while watching a very funny comedy sketch scene where their characters keep looking for each other on the stage until a nice punch line is finally delivered and then followed by the uproarious response from the audiences.

Although Reilly and Coogan are inarguably the main show of the movie, several other main cast members of the film hold their own place well around Coogan and Reilly. While Danny Huston and Rufus Jones are well-cast in their respective supporting roles, Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda do a lot more than expected as the caring spouses of Stan and Ollie, and they also provide plenty of amusement while showing how much their characters are different from each other just like Stan and Ollie.

On the whole, “Stan & Ollie” is a charming and entertaining comedy film supported well by the likable duo performance from Coogan and Reilly, and you will probably want to check out those Laurel and Hardy movies someday after the movie is over. As far as I could see from what is shown during the end credits of the film, Laurel and Hardy were indeed an impressive comic duo to remember, and the movie certainly works as a nice tribute to their life and career.

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