Jon S. Baird’s loving tribute to the legacy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy falls into a trap common to biopics of performers. The film focuses on an episode in the comedians’ career that occurred late in life, thus allowing the filmmakers simultaneously to provide an overview of that career and a comment on how it turned out. It’s the early 1950s, and Laurel and Hardy are obviously past their prime. They are touring music hall theaters throughout England, staging famous slapstick bits from their movies. Their fans are their age or older. Younger people, who don’t have widespread access to TV yet, barely know them and so aren’t interested in the show, which means the performances are lightly attended except in the larger cities. This background provides the narrative with its requisite bittersweet tone, and while Baird doesn’t force the point, he doesn’t seem to feel obliged to make any other case for their situation at the moment, which is made even more melancholy by the fact that the purpose of the tour is to drum up industry interest in a new movie, which Stan (Steve Coogan) is constantly working on by pitching new sketch proposals to his partner (John C. Reilly), who doesn’t seem particularly interested. Due to health problems and his relatively new wife (third? fourth?), Ollie has already assumed the attitude of a retired man.
This approach to the Laurel and Hardy legend effectively stifles our interest in what happened before, and the flashbacks of on-set problems, often involving their imperious producer, Hal Roach (Danny Huston), and whichever wives happened to be around, are rendered less interesting, illustrative rather than enlightening. There’s no sense of what made these men tick as comics and how their particular affinity for each other created such marvelous, indelible chemistry on screen. The overarching emotion is regret, but one that doesn’t have a distinct purchase on the action. We’re led to believe that the pair was one of the most successful acts of the 20th century, outshone only by Chaplin, but there’s little proof of that in the movie itself, and it has nothing to do with Coogan’s and Reilly’s portrayals, which are naturalistic and very convincing. It has to do with the idea that Baird assumes we love Stan and Ollie as much as he does and therefore are familiar with their legend and their art. As it stands, many of us probably are, simply because, unlike the invisible youth of England in the early 1950s, we grew up with television, where reruns of their classic shorts were ubiquitous. But you sort of expect more from a movie like this, and more from a director who is so enamored of his subjects.
Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).
Stan & Ollie home page in Japanese.
photo (c) eOne Features (S&O) Limited, British Broadcasting Corporation 2018