Awards season in Hollywood usually leaves many great films unrecognized by the legion of golden naked men — classics from David Lean’s Great Expectations through Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas are usually left with no nominations, at best one or two paltry bottom-tier recognitions. Though this year’s Academy Awards have proven to have outlived their usefulness, it’s a crying shame that for a ceremony that celebrates filmmaking, they didn’t recognize a loving tribute to their industry released two years ago — Stan & Ollie.
Centering on the sunset years of immortal comedy duo Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy — cast note-perfectly with Steve Coogan (Philomena) and John C. Reilly (Chicago), respectively — the comics find themselves in a changing landscape of filmmaking and next to no way to find financing for their next feature film. In something of a last-ditch effort for both their careers and to gain said monies, they arrange a performance tour throughout England and Ireland, where their longevity as comedians and friends will be tested by way of opinion, both public and private.
Laurel & Hardy are an integral part of the American comedic zeitgeist — above Buster Keaton, neck-and-neck with Charlie Chaplin and just below the Marx Brothers, in my opinion — and to emulate them is not the same as knowing them. Fortunately, Coogan & Reilly sink effortlessly into their respective roles (to say nothing of makeup playing a great hand in the latter’s resemblance), giving life to the legends of laughter — in addition to their humor, you see Coogan showing the tragic side of Laurel, as he tries to raise money for the film and the spirits of the audience and his working relationship; the man can do it all. Reilly also shows sides unseen of Hardy — his past as a gambler, his reluctance to leave the duo’s work with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, Hitchcock), and an almost childlike demeanor, of which Laurel serves as his guiding conscience, a la Jimmy Cricket. On that note, it was also really quite surprising to see that, despite their films portraying Hardy as the boss of the equation, the opposite was true in real life, with Laurel writing the scripts and calling quite a few of the shots.
Two other major standouts in the picture are in the form of actresses Shirley Henderson (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris), playing Lucy Hardy and Ida Laurel. Almost antagonists to each other (and each other’s spouses), they prove their mettle in the story when Ollie takes a turn for the worse. Arianda does the stern Russian expatriate that Ida is shown to be to a T, cherishing her and her husband’s past and not caring much for the future, while Henderson is the quiet, but extremely tough, American who simply wants the best for her marriage. I haven’t seen enough of Arianda’s work to comment on this in relation to her career, but Henderson is one of the most underrated actresses in English cinema today; she’s far more than “that lady who played Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter,” and this movie proves it.
Director Jon S. Baird keeps the film moving at a clipping pace, which may irk viewers expecting more of a retrospective of the duo’s career, but even so, I never felt anything was glossed over or over-expounded in the film. Further, while a period piece, this isn’t a film that focuses more on the events of the time than the subject(s) at hand; this is their chronicle, and it doesn’t get lost in the set pieces, costumes or various other recreations.
Stan & Ollie was truly more deserving of awards contention on its release, but for whatever reason, come the season, it was shunned save for a sole Golden Globe nomination, and more’s the pity; to honor an industry’s past is to know it. In spite of this, like so many other great films about the art of filmmaking — see also: Hugo, Saving Mr. Banks, Singin In The Rain — it will still exist among a trove of other greats, always there for any aspiring filmmaker to see — I highly recommend it to anyone with such an open mind.