This love-letter to Laurel & Hardy, the greatest film comedy double-act, features remarkable performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. Devotees of the beloved duo, who will have watched Stan & Ollie’s films countless times, will be astounded by the authenticity on show in director Jon S. Baird’s elegiac and moving dramatisation of their 1953 tour-of-Britain swansong.
The actors go beyond mimicry to capture much of the pair’s soul and comic chemistry. Prosthetics can only get you so far (Reilly’s double chin and Coogan’s extended ears), but their eyes, voices and movement are uncanny. At times it feels like watching the real thing. As their English promoter (Rufus Jones) says, after Laurel & Hardy perform an inspired ‘double door’ routine, “that was pure magic!”
We start in 1937, on the set of Way Out West, when Stan & Ollie were the biggest stars in Hollywood. The pair are captured performing their immortal dance routine (surely the inspiration for La La Land’s star-crossed lovers). But all is not well. There are wife problems, gambling problems and money problems. Stan, the writer and creative force behind their films, wants them to own their pictures, but Ollie is more easy-going, happy to stay hitched to studio boss (and, we learn, Mussolini fan), Hal Roach.
Cut to dark and rainy Newcastle, England, 1953. Laurel & Hardy book themselves into the Bottle & Glass Inn, where the welcome is less than warm. The receptionist says that she thought they’d retired. At first their British tour attracts meagre crowds in second-rate halls. Time has moved on – they have been overtaken by Norman Wisdom and Abbott & Costello. The comedown is cruel.
But as our aging heroes are forced back together, performing highlights on stage from their films (“boiled eggs and nuts! Hmm!”), they re-discover the old magic. By the time they reach London their publicity stunts ensure a sold-out fortnight at the Lyceum Theatre. Then their wives arrive at the Savoy and old tensions re-surface.
Now we get two double-acts for the price of one: in Stan & Ollie Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) get as nearly as many laughs as their husbands. Laurel’s wife is a no-nonsense Russian blonde who recalls the hard-boiled dames from L&H’s heyday; Lucille is petite and squeaky-voiced, perhaps channelling Hardy’s wife (Stan in drag) in Twice Two (1933).
‘The Boys’ fall out and ‘Babe’ Hardy has a minor heart attack. Rather than cancel the last dates of their tour, the promoter suggests that Laurel team up with Nobby Cook, an unfunny English comedian. But disaster is averted and there is a heart-warming finale in which love and talent triumph.
It might be too much to hope that a new generation flock to see Stan & Ollie and are inspired to seek out the real thing. But Baird’s film honours their memory beautifully. A little too quiet, post-war drab and melancholy for a young modern audience, perhaps, but Coogan and Reilly have worked wonders in bringing Laurel & Hardy to life.
There is a lovely technicolor scene from Stan’s imagined film ‘Rob ’em Good’, in which Ollie (Friar Tuck) falls into a pond. The long-suffering look he then gives to camera and the unhurried way he spouts water from his mouth are pure Oliver Hardy. I never thought anyone could get close to capturing Ollie’s portly elegance, his baroque hand gestures and good-humoured stoicism, but, in those moments, it is truly like we are watching a long-lost Laurel & Hardy film. Magic.