Cuckoos in Autumn
Films about brilliant and successful people just being brilliant and successful are not really that common, probably because they're actually quite dull. What you really want for a tip-top movie, especially a bio-pic, are some trials and struggling – someone fighting their way to the top and winning through by dint of sheer talent and hard work. Or, possibly even better, someone facing up to the reality that their best days may be behind them, and coming to terms with the fact that they are merely mortal after all. Some proper pathos, there, a real chance for some light and shade. I have no doubt that some of the foregoing may have influenced the thought processes behind Jon S Baird's Stan & Ollie, but presumably also crucial is the fact that this story, as well as featuring two genuine legends of world culture and dealing with universal themes, is set in locations in the UK which are reassuringly inexpensive to reach. (So it goes when you work for BBC Films, I suspect.)
This film is about, need it be said, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who are embodied for the occasion by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly respectively. The vast majority of it concerns a peculiar interlude in the early 1950s, many years after the peak of their success in Hollywood, when the now-ageing duo reunited for a tour of British and Irish music halls. It is a rather shabby comedown for two men who are still beloved and instantly recognisable wherever they go; their promoter Bernard Delfont – very unflatteringly portrayed here by Rufus Jones – books them into seedy guest houses and second-rate theatres, preferring to favour his hot young star Norman Wisdom.
Stan and Ollie are basically just doing the tour for the money, and because they are waiting on the finance to come together for a new movie Stan has has been working on the script for (at this point, historically, the pair had made only one poorly-received film in the previous eight years). However, the tour proves unexpectedly demanding and the stresses of it open up some old wounds in Laurel and Hardy's relationship...
A few months ago I suggested that Charlie Chaplin had a good claim to be the most recognisable person in history; well, not only are Laurel and Hardy amongst the few serious challengers to that title, they are probably held in greater affection, as well. Surely everybody knows Laurel and Hardy, the comedy double-act without a straight man, the duo who took idiocy and literally raised it to an art form. They are, surely, the greatest comedians in history, with a legacy that is likely to endure as long as our culture.
While this is, to some extent, good news for the makers of Stan & Ollie, because it means the movie comes with a built-in audience, there's also possibly a problem – namely, why would you want to watch two other men pretending to be Laurel and Hardy, when you could be watching the genuine article? (Their films are very easy to track down on t'internet these days, after all.) It's a mathematical fact that any new film is unlikely to be quite as joyous to watch as The Music Box or Way Out West.
The new movie tries to get round this problem by giving people what they'd expect from a Laurel and Hardy movie. Reilly and Coogan do an impressive job of capturing the essence of the duo, particularly when they are performing. Steve Coogan, it must be said, does not really look all that much like Stan Laurel, but is clearly working hard to get the voice right; John C Reilly is virtually spot-on as Oliver Hardy, though (hours in the make-up chair every day probably helped). You have to admire the actors for having the guts to recreate some of the pair's most iconic routines – there's a wonderful version of 'Lonesome Pine' – and it is almost as if they are channelling the essences of Stan and Ollie. Elsewhere, the film inserts various bits of characteristic business – their arrival at a hotel, with Stan overloaded with luggage, descends into chaos, while an attempt at carrying some heavy luggage up a flight of steps likewise does not go to plan. Given that most of the film concerns the very fact that off-screen the two men were quite different from their public personae, this is possibly a bit of a cheat, but it's an entertaining one.
And I would imagine the makers of this film are hoping that people will be interested enough in Laurel and Hardy to want to see a film which reveals a little more about them than their status as the world's worst piano delivery-men. I imagine the movie will probably be fairly informative for most people, making clear, for example, the real basis of their working relationship – in reality, Stan was the workaholic brains of the outfit, constantly coming up with new material, while Ollie – known to all as 'Babe' – was a more genial, laid-back character, a martyr to expensive hobbies like excessive gambling and alimony. Central to the plot is the fact that the duo were on separate contracts with their long-time producer Hal Roach (played here by Danny Huston), eventually leading to financial and personal tensions between them, not least because of Roach's attempt to launch Ollie as part of a new act, Langdon and Hardy, in the now-obscure comedy Zenobia.
This failed, needless to say, but the film does play with the notion of Laurel and Hardy working with other partners, and the sheer wrongness of how this feels is significant. Laurel and Hardy epitomise the notion of the comedy double act, after all, and if the film is about anything other than simply their final performances together, it's what it means to be in this kind of partnership – people with experience of it say it is not unlike being in a marriage, with all the affection, jealousy, interdependence and potential frustration inherent in that. (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson make a good impression as the boys' actual wives, fully aware of the odd quadrilateral dynamic to their situation.) And there's also that sensation of not really belonging anywhere else, no matter how you may personally feel in any given moment. The film explores this with great delicacy and tenderness, and if it does suggest that there was a dark side to Laurel and Hardy's relationship, it also stresses that it was ultimately founded on a deep fraternal love between the boys.
Well, it's a movie, so maybe this is true and maybe it isn't. But you'd certainly like to believe this was so, for if anything in this world is a source of untinged pleasure, it is watching Laurel and Hardy in action. Stan & Ollie never quite reaches that level of pure bliss, but it's a well-made, very well-performed, sympathetic and insightful portrait of the gentlemen in question. If nothing else, it should do a good job of reminding anyone who has forgotten just why the world has never stopped loving Laurel and Hardy, and that's surely worthwhile in itself. A fine film and well worth seeing.
Also So Far This Month...
…Bumblebee (a holdover from Christmas), in which a teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers her new car is actually an alien robot warrior in disguise (we've all been there). Finally a Transformers movie which appreciates the essential goofiness of the premise and doesn't smother it in heavy metal bombast. Michael Bay does not direct, unsurprisingly. Silly, but entertaining.
…Sorry to Bother You, another film from last year still hanging around in some cinemas. A boisterous and anarchic and actually quite surreal satire on American politics and society, as a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) discovers a strange talent for telemarketing, but only as long as he uses his 'white voice'. Not quite as profound as it probably thinks it is, and it does come a bit unravelled at the end, but the ferocious energy and inventiveness of the film are impressive; it is also very funny.