Updated: Mar 22, 2020
Thanks to "Stan and Ollie," critics like me got a break from using downbeat adjectives starting with the letter "d" in the awards bait movies we previewed last fall. Movies ranged from daunting to disheartening to dismal to destressing and depressing — traits common to serious, significant films that earn many awards nominations. But then "Stan and Ollie" came along and shifted those "d" words to diverting and droll. Smile inducing rather than serious, the film missed most major awards lists.
Limited attention came when actor John C. Reilley deservedly earned a Golden Globe nomination in the comedy category for his fine performance as the title's Ollie. Ollie, as in Oliver Hardy, partner to Stan Laurel, the classic movie comedy team whose box office allure faltered by the 1950s. That lull inspires the screenplay, which focuses on the duo's efforts to revive their career and launch a new film by hitting the vaudeville circuit. This allows actors Reilley and Steve Coogan to re-create Laurel and Hardy's masterful routines, whose basic conceits remain funny despite the passage of decades.
Based on choreographed physical sight gags rather than dialogue, the routines feature a timeless quality rooted in comedy basics stemming from the farcical elements of accidents and misunderstandings. With backgrounds in comedy and musical theater, actors Reilley and Coogan put precision timing into their work, moving just right as they recap the genius of the men they portray. A fat suit and make up particularly help Reilley get the right appearance, but both actors reach deeper than mimicry to put proper emotion into their performances.
Of course, as a biopic of sorts, the movie needs to present the personal issues that affected the duo off stage and screen. Coogan shows Stan as the pricklier of the two, tight-lipped and never satisfied. Reilley's Ollie follows a looser code, one that puts work over loyalty. Their conflicting styles helped make them funny on stage but made working together dramatic and challenging at times.
No great shocks come from the story line, which holds attention without breaking new ground. As with many biopics, the movie's major allure comes as a tribute to the greatness that inspired it — a chance to watch previous groundbreaking work as reinterpreted by newer talent. Coogan and Reilley live up to that test, filling the movie with reasons to smile.
This review was originally aired on 2/1/2019.
You can listen to it online at https://www.kunr.org/post/stan-and-ollie#stream/0