|'Stan & Ollie': 'Old Fat & Skinny'|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
12:58PM / Thursday, January 24, 2019
"Stan & Ollie," director Jon S. Baird's lovingly responsible biopic about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the world's most famous comedy duo, convivially invites you to bask in its embracing notions of love, friendship, loyalty and sense of duty.
The passion is such that, feeling protective of the boys, I couldn't help fantasize that if I should become king I'd make it a law that, once the talent in question was universally adored by the public, the enthusiasm was not to diminish, unless of course said entertainer either colluded with the Russians, repeatedly lied to the American public or was disgustingly narcissistic.
Of course, Stan and Ollie, who are little more than a vague name to most audiences under 50, wouldn't dare commit any of the aforementioned sins against society. But sorrowfully, me not being king, and the whims and wiles of things entertainment being as fickle as they are, the prologue to the film starkly notes that while at the pinnacle of their international success in 1937, by 1953 when the pair launch a comeback concert tour across Europe, they are practically unknown. We join them at this watershed juncture as they valiantly struggle to resurrect their careers and establish a proper legacy.
I and my Baby Boomer ilk were introduced to the legends via morning and midafternoon movie shows on TV in the '50s, when stations rented their films at bargain basement prices. We immediately loved them and claimed them for our generation, and I've little doubt that their iconoclastic, individualistic hijinks, usually at the expense of polite society, had no small part in freeing our minds for the social revolution we would wage in the 1960s.
To my wife, Joanne, in the pre-politically correct era of her childhood, referring to Laurel and Hardy as "Old Fat and Skinny" differentiated them from the more contemporary, also great but perhaps not as ingenious, Abbott and Costello, or, "New Fat and Skinny." Hence, even though we now partake only rarely in an occasional screening of a Laurel and Hardy film on TCM, the spark is quickly relighted. We share a past.
So as the story unwinds it's a bit difficult to witness the post-1937 trouncing, much of it conducted by Philistine, showbiz bigwigs and their stooges. Alas, they fight the good fight — sheer talent and gumption their weapons.
Powerfully emotive performances by John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan as Hardy and Laurel, respectively, are
such that not only do they genially affect devotees but probably also go a long way to roping in and causing similar disgruntlement among members of the Great Unwashed who serendipitously decide to see this film. What newbies might not realize as their empathy is aroused is just how startlingly accurate Reilly and Coogan's accents and appearances are.
Hardly five minutes of the movie had elapsed before I was predicting an Oscar nomination for Mark Coulier's metamorphic transformation of Mr. Reilly to Oliver Hardy. Furthermore, if either Reilly or Coogan missed an inflection or a nuance, you'd have to be a close relative of either title character to know it. But the two actors' greatest achievement, aside from emulating to a T the signature shtick their characters made famous, is in characterizing the depth of their friendship.
We cherish the vanity. Though of course unimportant insofar as measuring the intrinsic talent of a comedy team, it is nonetheless our unspoken wish that the two, usually in contrast to their stage behavior, be true friends in real life. While Neil Simon put a cynical, roundabout edge to it in his semi-biographical "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), about vaudeville duo Smith and Dale, Baird, working from Jeff Pope's screenplay, is sympathetically indulgent. Spoiler or not, we just couldn't stand it if we discovered that behind the paycheck Stan and Ollie actually disliked each other.
But while in this manner pleasing our sense of values, the interaction between these national treasures goes far beyond just a tale of names that could be uttered in the same sentence as Chaplin and Keaton without compunction. Gadzooks, man, this is the stuff of great philosophers since time immemorial, the idea of friendship itself, the essence of gregariousness, the very DNA of civilization.
While billionaires may find solace in the sizeable balance their bankbooks show, anyone who's lived at least a little time in this world knows that real wealth is having made at least one true friend before the fat lady sings. They care just as much whether you've broken your arm or were saddened because the cobbler rang the death knell on your favorite pair of shoes. Watching these great comics trying to iron out their differences and preserve a very special relationship in spite of the challenges wrought by a changing world becomes a very personal experience as you find yourself warmly contemplating your own Stan or Ollie.
"Stan & Ollie," rated PG, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Jon S. Baird and stars John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan and Shirley Henderson. Running time: 97 minutes