Comedy in media has changed so drastically throughout the years.
These days, we seek TV and Netflix specials for comedy, and the popular genres have shifted from screwball and slapstick in the early 20th century to absurdist and shock factor in the early 21st century. There is a huge distinction between today’s comedians and those of early cinema, such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers—and, of course, Laurel and Hardy.
Not only were Stan Laurel and Ollie “Babe” Hardy praised for their physical comedy from the 1920s to the ‘40s, but they found their fame in the nature of their duo. They balanced each other out with the characters they presented—Laurel with his childlike, clumsy nature, and Hardy with his brash, in-charge presence.
From the direction of John S. Baird comes a love letter to this comedy duo, “Stan & Ollie,” starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the respective title characters.
“Stan & Ollie” is not your typical tribute film. While Reilly and Coogan perform many of the duo’s bits, the film is not a showcase of their work, focusing more on the behind-the-scenes relationship between the pair.
This focus is established early on. In the first scene, the partners are seen meandering through a Hollywood soundstage, a location that emphasizes the larger than life (and at times even cartoonish) atmosphere of that era’s production scene. But their conversation is so mundane—about friends, the women they’ve been dating, and a number of other average topics that you would not expect in the midst of such a “Hollywood” scene.
That close familiarity is broken by a 16-year jump, in which we find ourselves in London, on Stan and Ollie’s last tour. Their hope is to pick up enough fanfare (a difficult task, since many of their fans think they’ve retired) and impress a studio exec who has promised financing for a film. But the two are not as close as they used to be, and rifts from their past resurface as they try to make the best of their old partnership, while their agent (played by Rufus Jones) beats around the bush.
Reilly and Coogan are a delight to watch, not only in the slow-boiling tension between the two old pals, but in the realization of the duo’s gimmicks. It quickly becomes clear that Stan is the creative brain. He tirelessly proposes scene ideas for both the film they’re preparing for and for the bits that will get them through the tour.
Ironically, it is the comedy gold that appears apart from their brainstorming, simply in the mundaneness of their actions, which will captivate your attention. There’s something to be said about the way a comedian can try a bit this way and that but not feel confident with it, and then turn around and stumble through a real-life scenario that translates beautifully to audiences. We see this often throughout the film, as the two attempt to hone bits that may never see the light of day, but then, for example, drop a heavy suitcase down a flight of stairs.
Another joy of the film is watching Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Laurel in their antagonistic friendship. For Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda), “butting heads” is a kind term, but the two stick it out for their significant others. The story touches on loyalty in many forms, and the way these four characters revolve around each other is fascinating.
The film cultivates a significant air of nostalgia, at times even matching the spirit of Laurel and Hardy films with its meandering pace and situational humor. But there is a deeper vein to “Stan & Ollie,” one that explores the entanglement of friendship and artistic fulfillment, and the study of the meaning behind a partnership. While “Stan & Ollie” won’t wow you with extraordinary tricks, it will tug at your heartstrings.
“Stan & Ollie” arrives this month at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.midtowncinema.com.
FEBRUARY SPECIAL EVENTS
Down in Front! presents
“Time Chasers” (1994)
Friday, Feb. 8, 9:30 p.m.
3rd in the Burg $3 Movie
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
Friday, Feb. 15, 9:30 p.m.
National Theatre Live presents
“I’m Not Running”
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m.
A Red Carpet Evening
Sunday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.