FILM REVIEW – STAN & OLLIE. With John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston. Written by Jeff Pope. Directed by Jon S. Baird. Rated PG for some language, and for smoking. 97 minutes.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of film’s greatest comedy teams. Paired in the latter years of the silent period by producer Hal Roach, they easily transitioned into talkies. In the prologue to STAN & OLLIE, we see Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) getting ready to work on one of their best films, “Way Out West” (1937).
While the pair had a good working relationship, they were not close personal friends. Late in life, after their film career was over – although they did not yet realize it – they toured British and Irish music halls, and it was then they built a personal bond. That’s what “Stan & Ollie” is about, and the result is one of the very best films of 2018.
The film takes some liberties with the timeline, but it’s essentially a factual story of two longtime partners coming to appreciate just how important they have been to each other. As they attempt to build interest in their tour, Stan is trying to put a new movie deal together. The British comic, who came to America with the same theatrical troupe that brought over Charlie Chaplin, was the comic genius of the pair, writing and often directing their most famous bits. Ollie, who hailed from Georgia, had had some success in a solo career, including appearing as the Tin Man in a silent version of “The Wizard of Oz,” but it was when he started working with Stan that his own comic brilliance got to shine.
It’s been said that a comic team is like a married couple, and the film plays off the Stan/Ollie relationship with their own marriages, Stan’s to the strong-willed Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie to Lucille (Shirley Henderson), who has become increasingly concerned about his health. Like any such marriage, it has its problems, with the movie showing how the two men ultimately realize their partnership has been the most important thing in their lives.
As Stan, British actor Coogan hits all the right notes, and nails the different way the actor sounded on screen as opposed to real life. However, the jaw-dropping performance here is that of John C. Reilly as Ollie. Sure, he’s in a fat suit and with a lot of latex makeup to become the heavy-set comic, but it’s his acting, not the latex, that is amazing. We’ve taken this character actor for granted, even as he’s done comedy, drama, musicals, westerns, and even played villains. After this we have to consider Reilly at the rarefied level of Meryl Streep, where seemingly nothing is beyond his capabilities. In a year where several actors have hit career highs in biographical roles, Reilly was not nominated for the Oscar, but he deserved it.
As a Hollywood biopic, as a story of male bonding, as a look at how aging changes one’s perspective, “Stan & Ollie” is stellar. That it also provides some laughs as Coogan and O’Reilly recreate the team’s comic routines is a bonus. Don’t miss this one.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.