Montag, 20. Mai 2019

Stan & Ollie

At first glance, Jon S. Baird's take on the last hurrah of legendary comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy looks like the kind of pleasantly middle-of-the-road tragicomedy that has become the dominant mode of representing classical Hollywood in the 2010s, from Hitchcock (2012) to Trumbo (2015) – staples of late-summer Oscar buzz, which is unfailingly undone by reliably middling reviews.

But while stylistically, Stan & Ollie is still closer to those offerings – straightforwardly biographical storytelling revolving around engaging lead performances – than to, say, Hail, Caesar! (2016), the Coen brothers' wonderfully strange (and ostensibly fictional) deconstruction of golden-age Hollywood, it is still vastly superior, both as a film and as homage to arguably the greatest comedy double act in history.

Based on an original script by Philomena co-writer Jeff Pope, Stan & Ollie recounts the physically taxing stage tour through Great Britain and Ireland the aging Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) undertook in 1953, as they were waiting for the funding for a late-career movie project to come together.

Baird, who has previously directed the ostentatiously crass Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth (2013), does a commendable job at mostly skirting easy sentimentality and overly explicit emotional manipulation, opting instead for a surprisingly subtle and beautifully tender exploration of friendship, fame, and the looming challenge of sorting out one's private life when one's public life is at an end. The result is a deeply touching translation of the pathos and whimsy of Laurel and Hardy into a biopic narrative that manages to be charmingly funny and, at the same time, heart-wrenchingly elegiac.

In 1953, legendary comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan, right) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) embark on a stage tour of Britain and Ireland.
© Impuls Pictures AG
In this effort, Baird and Pope are supported by two brilliant performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, who not only prove themselves master imitators – their arrival at a run-down Newcastle inn is a joy to behold – but who are extremely adept at looking behind their subjects' comedic veneer and uncovering a complex entanglement of emotion. Stan, the comedy artist, is still struggling with his partner's apparent willingness to be a pawn of the studio system; Ollie is questioning the wisdom of still performing given his age and health issues; both men have to come to terms with initially underwhelming crowd sizes and their own status as venerable have-beens.

Stan & Ollie never overplays its hand in these instances but is confident enough in its actors' ability and its own emotional weight to play out these conflicts in understated moments tinged with gentle comedy or – such as in the standout scene where Stan makes a visit to a bedridden Oliver – to stay silent altogether. Along with the elegant borrowing, inserting, and reworking of iconic imagery – most notably the duo's hospital bed routine from 1932's County Hospital as well as the dancing scene from their 1937 feature Way Out West – it's these moments that make Stan & Ollie feel wholly in the Laurel and Hardy spirit.

★★★★

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