Hats off to a gem

Sunday Express - - COMMENT - By Andy Lea


(PG, 98 mins)

Jon S Baird

John C Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Hen­der­son

Di­rec­tor: Stars: THE UP­SIDE

(12A, 126 mins)

Neil Burger

Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Ni­cole Kid­man

Di­rec­tor: Stars: CO­LETTE

(15, 112 mins)

Wash West­more­land

Keira Knight­ley, Do­minic West

Di­rec­tor: Stars:

NOV­EL­IST Kurt Von­negut wrote: “I used to laugh my head off at Lau­rel and Hardy,” in A Man With A Coun­try. “There is ter­ri­ble tragedy there some­how. These men are too sweet to sur­vive in this world and are in ter­ri­ble dan­ger all the time. They could so eas­ily be killed.”

I looked up this quote after see­ing

a lovely film about the duo’s 1952 the­atri­cal tour of the UK. I laughed my head off watch­ing Steve Coogan and John C Reilly too. They recre­ate the songs, dances and slap­stick rou­tines so joy­ously that it felt like I was watch­ing the real Stan and Ol­lie.

But the film isn’t just out to tickle our funny bones. You can also feel Von­negut’s sense of im­pend­ing tragedy.

Here the duo are down on their luck and well past their prime. The world has changed since their 1930s hey­day. As a de­jected Stan stands in front of a Three Stooges poster, you feel his vul­ner­a­bil­ity. It seems he re­ally might be “too sweet to sur­vive”.

It turns out that di­rec­tor Jon S Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope (Philom­ena) are quite a dou­ble act too. A more ob­vi­ous biopic would have fo­cused on their glory years and found drama in the power struggles and scan­dals of Hol­ly­wood’s golden age.

Baird and Pope give us the briefest glimpse of their hey­day in a clever open­ing se­quence. It’s 1937 and Lau­rel and Hardy are the big­gest com­edy stars in the world. In a sin­gle take, Baird’s cam­era sweeps from their dress­ing room to a sound stage.

By now their dou­ble act is 10 years old and as they tip their bowler hats and twid­dle their ties to pass­ing tech­ni­cians and ex­tras, it seems their schtick has be­come al­most in­stinc­tive.

With great econ­omy, Pope’s script then sketches in their pri­vate relationship. Ol­lie (Reilly), or Babe to his friends, has gam­bled his way through his pay packet and the de­ter­mined Stan wants him to back him up in ne­go­ti­at­ing a more lu­cra­tive con­tract with pro­ducer Hal Roach (Danny Hus­ton).

After a dis­cus­sion with Roach turns into a row, Stan ca­su­ally ush­ers Ol­lie in front of a Wild West back­drop and tells the di­rec­tor pre­cisely where to place his cam­era. Then they break into that en­dear­ing jig from Way Out West, one of the most life-af­firm­ing se­quences in the his­tory of cin­ema.

This is the last we see of comic ac­tors Coogan and Reilly. From here on they will com­pletely dis­ap­pear into the roles of Lau­rel and Hardy. We then jump for­ward 15 years and see the af­ter­math of Stan’s hard­line stance with the stu­dio.

The pair are book­ing into a cheap ho­tel in New­cas­tle ahead of their show in a small the­atre. Peo­ple as­sume the stars had re­tired on their for­tunes years ago. Oth­ers think they must be a trib­ute act. Their for­tunes

Ol­lie, Stan &

change when their pro­moter ar­ranges a se­ries of pub­lic­ity stunts for the news­reels. As the venues grad­u­ally get big­ger, Stan and Ol­lie in­vite their wives to the UK.

Nina Arianda and Shirley Hen­der­son are an­other great dou­ble act as the squab­bling Mrs Lau­rel and Mrs Hardy, and pro­vide wel­come comic re­lief when their hus­bands’ relationship takes a more se­ri­ous turn.

“You loved Lau­rel and Hardy but you never loved me,” says Ol­lie to Stan as long-held re­sent­ments come to a head. They sound like an old mar­ried cou­ple be­cause they es­sen­tially are. When they ar­rived in the UK, they were look­ing to res­ur­rect their movie ca­reers and en­tice a Bri­tish pro­ducer to fund Stan’s new Robin Hood spoof. By the end of their tour, it has al­most be­come a second hon­ey­moon. As Ol­lie’s health fails and Stan’s film deal evap­o­rates, they re­alise that all that is left is their friend­ship.

Now we’re watch­ing a tear-jerk­ing love story, al­beit one in­volv­ing two straight men in their mid-60s. The end cred­its roll with the real Lau­rel and Hardy per­form­ing their fa­mous jig in front of a sa­loon packed with gun-sling­ing des­per­a­does.

Per­haps this was the se­quence that made Von­negut fear for their lives.

It’s still hi­lar­i­ous but now they are danc­ing to a slightly dif­fer­ent tune. If you’re in the right cin­ema, the singing cow­boys will be ac­com­pa­nied by a cho­rus of gen­tle sobs.

Sub­ti­tles can have a mag­i­cal ef­fect on an au­di­ence. In some cases, they can trans­form the most laboured com­edy into an ab­so­lute riot. Some­times, it al­most seems peo­ple are com­pet­ing to laugh first. I’m guess­ing those types won’t go to see

The Up­side,a

Hol­ly­wood re­make of hit French com­edy

The In­touch­ables. But they would be miss­ing out as it’s one of those rare re-dos that im­proves on the orig­i­nal.

Here, comic Kevin Hart and Break­ing Bad’s Bryan Cranston add heart and hu­mour to the plot of a syrupy 2011 French com­edy about an up­tight white quad­ri­plegic who gets his groove back after hir­ing a black nurse. A sur­pris­ingly re­strained Hart is at his most like­able as Dell, an ex-con strug­gling to get his life back on track and con­nect with his es­tranged son.

When he ac­ci­den­tally wan­ders into an in­ter­view for a job as nurse to Man­hat­tan bil­lion­aire Phil (Cranston), his brusque man­ner fails to im­press Phil’s as­sis­tant Yvonne (Ni­cole Kid­man). But grief-stricken Phil senses a way out of his dull ex­is­tence. To Dell’s shock, he gets the job.

An an­gry ex-con may not be what the doc­tor or­dered but Phil knows he needs some­thing to shake him from his tor­por. The job means Dell has to put some­one else’s needs above his own. Phil starts to lighten up and a beau­ti­ful friend­ship is born.

It’s still corny but Cranston has great comic tim­ing, there are some sharp lines and Hart weighs in with some phys­i­cal busi­ness in a high-tech shower that would have im­pressed Stan and Ol­lie.

AT ONE point, it looked like this year’s Oscars were shap­ing up to be a bat­tle be­tween two sap­phic pe­riod dra­mas. In one cor­ner, we had The Favourite, a bawdy com­edy about Queen Anne’s relationship with Lady Sarah Churchill. In the other was taste­ful but largely hu­mour­less film about early 20th-cen­tury French writer Si­donieGabrielle Co­lette, star­ring Keira Knight­ley.

If I was a mem­ber of the Academy, I know which one I’d get into bed with.

Co­lette fo­cuses on her 14-year mar­riage to Willy (Do­minic West), a louche lit­er­ary im­pre­sario who pub­lished all of her erotic nov­els in his own name.

As she be­comes en­trenched in the lib­er­tine cul­ture of Belle Epoque Paris, she em­barks on a fling with Amer­i­can heiress Flossy (Caro­line Boul­ton with a ter­ri­ble South­ern ac­cent), be­fore fall­ing for Missy (Denise Gough), a butch aris­to­crat.

West makes a great cad, there are sharp lines and the sets and cos­tumes are sump­tu­ous. But it’s also a bit of a slog. By the second hour, it feels like nu­ance has been sac­ri­ficed to the de­mands of a mod­ern fem­i­nist plot. In the end, a film about a gay icon is played dis­ap­point­ingly straight.


REEL STARS: John C Reilly and Steve Coogan bring Lau­rel and Hardy back to life

LIB­ER­TINE: Keira Knight­ley plays Co­lette

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