[Screen It]


(2019) (John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan) (PG)

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Drama: Long after their heyday in Hollywood, two once-legendary comedians perform their act on a tour of parts of Great Britain.
It's 1953 and the Hollywood heyday of the comedy duo of Stan Laurel (STEVE COOGAN) and Oliver Hardy (JOHN C. REILLY) is long in the past. Yet, they're still working, and with them planning on making a spoof movie based on Robin Hood, they embark on a tour of parts of Great Britain arranged by local promoter Bernard Delfont (RUFUS JONES) to raise their profile and make some money along the way. But they end up playing barely filled venues and wonder if anyone cares about them anymore.

Of course, their wives -- Lucille Hardy (SHIRLEY HENDERSON) and Ida Laurel (NINA ARIANDA) -- do and eventually join them on the tour, but the less than enthusiastic response to their tour makes them question continuing their endeavor. And it brings up old wounds in that Oliver -- still under contract sixteen years earlier to studio head Hal Roach (DANNY HUSTON) while Stan was free -- ended up being paired with a replacement partner. That and Oliver's failing health means the last hurrah of the once legendary comedy duo could be coming soon.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I've often wondered about performers who hit it big -- sometimes for years and others for decades -- and then eventually faded off the radar screen of mega-popularity, only to end up playing for years and, yes, occasionally additional decades, usually in really small venues. Did they love performing so much that they just had to keep on keeping on? Did they actually like smaller, more intimate settings that gave them a closer connection to their audience? Or did they long for the old days and hate that the money wasn't coming in like it once did and that they had to keep performing in order to put food on the table?

That usually applies to musical acts that go from playing in front of 50,000 or more viewers in mega stadiums to performing for a few hundred at small state fairs and such. But others, such as comedians, often face the same downsizing. Such was the case with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy better known simply as Laurel & Hardy, when they embarked on a partial European stage tour in 1953 doing the same acts and shtick that made them mega famous -- worldwide -- decades before.

That event -- when the men were 63 and 61 respectively -- is portrayed on the big screen in "Stan & Ollie," a decently entertaining drama that clocks in at around 97 minutes. I have to admit that I knew little about the two before seeing the film, but had seen some of their movies and shorts on TV while growing up in the 1960s and '70s.

I'm guessing those a decade or more younger than me probably have no working knowledge of the comedy duo, but perhaps this flick -- featuring two strong performances from the lead actors and some slightly amusing ones from the women playing their wives -- will generate a revival of their works that are considered classics of the era in which they operated and were huge stars of the cinema.

Rather than try to cover their entire lives or even just the entirety of their careers, writer Jeff Pope and director Jon S. Baird focus briefly on a pivotal moment in the working relationship between the two that occurred in 1937 before jumping forward sixteen years for the main body of the story. It's then that we see Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) a bit past their prime and certainly greatly faded from the general movie-going population's memory.

They're in parts of Great Britain to remind folks they haven't gone away and to convince a producer that there's still interest in them and thus secure funding for their upcoming movie that Stan is still writing. Plus they could use the money themselves. The only problem is that the venues that their local promoter (Rufus Jones) has picked out aren't the biggest and best of their areas, and easily more than half the seats aren't filled. That causes them to wonder if their time has passed and whether it's worth continuing.

But coming up with slapstick style gags is so much coursing through their veins that they can't help themselves, as evidenced by repeated scenes of them taking brief moments here and there to come up with new material when not otherwise reprising bits they've done before.

In Blake Snyder's screenwriting manual "Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need," the author mentions that buddy movies are really, in their essence, love stories and that's certainly the case here.

The two comedians, with their long history together, are like a long-married couple where they complement each other well and sometimes annoy and get on each other's nerves but ultimately really love each other deeply (but platonically). And like any romantic comedy, the two eventually have a falling out where the relationship ultimately seems irreparably doomed. But as in all such films, we know they'll likely make amends, forgive each other, and put their act back together.

Along for the ride are Nina Arianda as Stan's wife and Shirley Henderson as Oliver's spouse. The latter is worried about her husband's declining health, while the former is outspoken and full of herself, and the two actually make for a fairly entertaining comedy duo of their own (with one playing the "straight man" to the other's sometimes outrageous demeanor).

They're certainly fun to watch, but this is Coogan and Reilly's show and the two make for believable flesh, blood, and soul representations of the real-life men both on stage (from what I recall) and off that (which I'm guessing is accurate in full or at least to some degree). While the scale of the story is small, that's appropriate for this all-too-familiar tale of once mega-famous performers still out there, grinding away, even if their audiences and resultant fame are mere shadows of themselves. "Stan & Ollie" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 13, 2019 / Posted January 18, 2019

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