We’ve got one last film to review from 2018 before tomorrow’s announcement of the Oscar nominees. Stan & Ollie may get shut out of the proceedings entirely, or it could find itself up for a small handful of categories, it’s hard to say.
So far, it hasn’t won anything, but it has gotten some nominations and accolades. Both of the lead actors have gotten a nod – Steve Coogan for Lead Actor at the BAFTAs and John C. Reilly for Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes, and the film is shortlisted for the Oscar in Makeup & Hairstyling. We’ll learn the film’s fate in just a few short hours, but it’s still worth exploring in the meantime.
The film begins with Coogan and Reilly as the titular comedy duo Laurel & Hardy on the set of their movie, Way Out West in 1937. A contract dispute with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) results in a temporary split in the group and a sense of betrayal and bitterness in Laurel. Occasionally flashing back to this period, the rest of the film takes place in 1953, during the UK/Ireland stage tour the pair performed before finally retiring.
There are quite a few melodramatic moments that don’t really land, mostly because they were either manufactured for dramatic effect or were so obvious that they couldn’t really have any true emotional resonance. It’s also a tad weird that Laurel’s backstory is that he was dumped by Roach for wanting fair market value for the pair’s talent but then does this tour with the backing of a truly shady huckster played by Rufus Jones.
Still, there’s a great deal to enjoy with this movie, thanks in large part to Coogan and Reilly’s performances. A cinematic and comedic match made in Heaven, Coogan plays Stan Laurel as the best kind of sad clown, nailing his avatar’s wry, longing smile perfectly. Meanwhile, under a great deal of prosthetics, Reilly embodies the physical comedy of Oliver Hardy with a cheeky aplomb that is endearing beyond belief. Either would be fine on their own, but as a dyad they’re electric. They play off each other with seemingly no effort, their comedic timing as natural as the growing grass.
There’s even something to be said for the secondary duo in the film, Lucille and Ida, the stars’ wives. Whereas Stan and Ollie (or Babe as he’s sometimes called) are deep friends working through some hurt feelings, their wives playfully snipe at each other with barely concealed contempt, often upstaging their marital counterparts in the one-liner department. Played by the wonderful Shirley Henderson and the heretofore unknown to me Nina Arianda, respectively, Lucille and Ida definitely get their fair share of laughs, stealing the spotlight to the chagrin of none.
The film is certainly flawed, but honestly, if you’re going to do a film that banks on nostalgia – which is sadly a LOT of what we get these days – this is the way to do it. Both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have been dead for more than 50 years. Their style of comedy, while not forgotten, has well faded into the pages of history. And yet, there are people in the audience who can remember the pair in their heyday, and for them, this is a rare, welcome treat, to be reminded of what they loved oh so long ago. This isn’t like Mary Poppins, which is still readily available and culturally relevant despite its age, or any number of remakes and reboots which just cash in on positive feelings from properties that are really still part of the zeitgeist.
No, this is true nostalgia. It’s not just a wink and nod to a known reference, but a complete reintroduction. It’s an avenue to learn and explore, while being thoroughly entertained at the same time. It’s a soft, yet compelling look at something that once took the world by storm, but now is considered a relic, which makes it all the more enchanting when you get your first taste of it. There’s no fatigue with Laurel & Hardy like there is with Disney live-action remakes. There’s no one out there who doesn’t have access to The Lion King to see that it was perfectly fine the first time. But Laurel & Hardy long ago took their final curtain, and more than enough time has passed for a new generation to learn about them. And maybe, just maybe, because of the utterly delightful performances of the duo’s imitators, the public can get a new appreciation for the things it enjoys now with that bit of history to inform.
That would be a fine mess to get us all into.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite comedy duo? How is John C. Reilly more funny and endearing in one fat suit role than Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, John Travolta, and Tyler Perry combined? Let me know!