By Eleanor Ringel Cater
One difficulty facing anyone who writes about the lovely new movie, “Stan & Ollie” is, do people still know who Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are?
I asked a culturally conscious Gen-Xer and she knew them. How? From the oft-glimpsed poster on “Friends,” where they’re sharing a bed.
Well, yep, that’s them.
But they were so much more. Possibly the most successful and beloved comedy team in movie history, the pair made shorts and features for decades, beginning when silents were still king.
“Stan & Ollie” opens in 1937 with a prologue that establishes the two at the height of their genius and popularity. Laurel (Steve Coogan) is the childlike and clueless one or, more to the point, the thin one. Hardy (John C. Reilly) is the pompous, bullying one, aka, the fat one.
We meet them in their dressing room, chatting about this and that, then, in a tracking shot reminiscent of Robert Altman’s opening in “The Player,” we follow them through the backlot and onto a soundstage. After an exchange with “frenemy” director, Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the cameras roll and they begin one of those inimitable, indescribable little dances they always did.
It’s a sublime moment, one of pure enchantment and, yes, adoration on the part of the filmmakers.
Flash forward to 1953. They are older; so are their audiences. Essentially, their heyday has come and gone and now they’re on a live tour through the backwater variety halls of Great Britain. They sing a little, dance a little, and recreate their most famous movie sketches. The idea is to raise financing for their next film, a comic rift on Robin Hood called “Rob ‘em Good.”
Initially, the houses are half-empty, one sign that their glory days are behind them. Another is the clerk at a somewhat rundown hotel who gushes, “We never have anyone famous staying here. To be honest, I thought you’d retired.”
Guess that’s better than “died.”
But as the movie shows, there’s life left in the “boys” – enough for a London triumph and, less happily, for long-simmering resentments to split them apart. Perhaps for good.
Though it concentrates on their later years, “Stan & Ollie” is far from an elegy. Rather, it’s a gently knowing celebration of a unique team and two unique talents. It is to Coogan and Reilly’s considerable credit that they capture these geniuses so exquisitely, from Laurel’s unmistakable head scratch to Hardy’s infamous slow burn. There are scattered tributes to their movies, too, such as a steamer trunk that bumps its way down a long flight of stairs, just as the piano did in their Oscar-winning “The Music Box.”
We also get a glimpse of their private life when their wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) join the tour. They are a comedy act in themselves — Lucille with her chirpy little voice and utter devotion to Ollie, Ida with her Slavic growl and eagle-eyed management of Stan (he liked his cocktails).
Still the movie’s center, as it should be, is the perfect interplay between Coogan and Reilly. At times, their talk of the Robin Hood movie (which never came to be) echoes Lenny and George talking about their dreamed-of (and never realized) rabbit farm in “Of Mice and Men.”
Hence the poignancy laced among the laughs. “I loved us,” Laurel protests at one point. “You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me,” replies Ollie.
“Stan & Ollie” suggests otherwise. More importantly, it reminds us why so many loved them for so long in the first place.