Coogan, Reilly deftly dis­solve into their roles in spec­u­la­tive look at Lau­rel & Hardy’s later years

Chicago Sun-Times - - WEEKEND PLUS - RICHARD ROEPER [email protected]­times.com | @RichardERoeper

We of­ten talk about how stars can dis­ap­pear be­neath makeup and pros­thet­ics and pad­ding and wardrobe, to the point where they’re vir­tu­ally un­rec­og­niz­able.

If no­body told you who was play­ing Dick Cheney in “Vice,” would you have guessed Chris­tian Bale? What about Gary Old­man as Win­ston Churchill in “Dark­est Hour,” or Tilda Swin­ton play­ing an old man in “Sus­piria,” or even Mar­got Rob­bie in “Mary Queen of Scots”?

For the sweet-na­tured, oc­ca­sion­ally melan­choly and thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing Hol­ly­wood biopic “Stan & Ol­lie,” John C. Reilly re­port­edly spent four hours in the makeup chair ev­ery morn­ing to trans­form him­self into Oliver Hardy, and no doubt Steve Coogan had to al­lo­cate more than a few min­utes ev­ery day to achieve re­sem­blance to Stan Lau­rel — but in both cases, they don’t dis­ap­pear so much as they seem to meld with their sub­jects.

Which makes the work all the more en­dear­ing and au­then­tic.

Di­rected by Jon S. Baird and writ­ten by Jeff Pope, “Stan and Ol­lie” is a brisk (97 min­utes), metic­u­lously staged, no frills, al­most too con­ven­tional “two-han­der” fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on the leg­endary comedic duo’s 1953 tour of the United King­dom, some two decades past their peak years.

First, we spend a lit­tle time in the mid-1930s, when Lau­rel and Hardy were a wildly pop­u­lar duo, churn­ing out hit af­ter hit for the Hal Roach Stu­dios. (Danny Hus­ton, a third­gen­er­a­tion Hol­ly­wood main­stay him­self — half-brother of An­gel­ica, grand­son of Wal­ter — is ter­rific as the no-non­sense Roach).

In a sense, Reilly and Coogan are play­ing dual roles: the hap­less, hi­lar­i­ous, slap­stick duo in front of the cam­era, and the men play­ing those well-honed char­ac­ters.

When they’re “on,” Lau­rel is the bum­bling, stum­bling goof­ball, and Hardy is the pompous foil who con­stantly finds him­self the butt of the

joke. In real life, so to speak, Lau­rel is the more cere­bral and am­bi­tious and busi­ness-minded of the two, while Hardy is a bit of a dreamer with a weak­ness for bet­ting on the ponies.

Ah, but what a team they make! Magic in front of the cam­era, friends and part­ners af­ter the di­rec­tor barks “Cut!”

Flash for­ward to New­cas­tle, Eng­land, 1953, with Lau­rel and Hardy ar­riv­ing at the de­cid­edly down­scale Bot­tle & Glass Inn. (And just in case we don’t get the mes­sage about their cur­rent lot, it lit­er­ally be­gins to rain on the fel­las.)

The boys — who are now late mid­dle-aged men — are em­bark­ing on a tour of mid-level mu­sic halls, car­ni­vals, din­ers and beauty pageants while Stan se­cures fi­nanc­ing for their cine­matic come­back.

On­stage, they still have the magic touch — but Oliver is not well, and he huffs and puffs and sweats pro­fusely from the phys­i­cal­ity re­quired of their rou­tines, while Stan can barely dis­guise the sad­ness he feels when he’s re­minded younger au­di­ences don’t even know Lau­rel and Hardy were once the great­est and most her­alded com­edy duo in the world.

Shirley Hen­der­son adds spice as Lu­cille Hardy and Nina Arianda is a dead­pan de­light as Ida Lau­rel, the long-suffering but lov­ing wives. (More ac­cu­rately, the last of their re­spec­tive wives. Lau­rel was mar­ried four times; Hardy thrice.) As long-sim­mer­ing dif­fer­ences be­tween the old part­ners reach the boil­ing point and they reach a se­ri­ous im­passe, it’s the wives who pro­vide the hu­man­ity and, in some cases, the much-needed hu­mor.

“I loved us,” says Stan.

“You loved Lau­rel and Hardy, but you never loved me,” replies Oliver. “So what?” says Stan. Tough stuff — but we get the feel­ing these two gi­ants of com­edy will work through the dis­ap­point­ments and the missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, the per­ceived acts of be­trayal, the bruised egos, all of it.

Af­ter all, theirs was a mar­riage of sorts as well. A part­ner­ship that cre­ated some time­less com­edy and in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions of per­form­ers. Thanks to the sub­tle bril­liance of Reilly and Coogan, even some­one who’s never heard of Lau­rel and Hardy would likely see how mag­i­cal these two were to­gether.


Steve Coogan (left) plays Stan Lau­rel along­side John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy in “Stan & Ol­lie.”

Play­ing the long-suffering wives of the comic duo, Shirley Hen­der­son (left) and Nina Arianda bring hu­mor to some of the movie’s tenser mo­ments.

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