Comedian and Oscar nominated actor John C. Reilly had a busy year: riding alongside Joaquin Phoenix in the Western; “The Sisters Brothers,” voicing the title character in “Ralph Breaks the Internet;” seen here in “Stan & Ollie;” and ending the year re-teaming with pal Will Ferrell in “Holmes & Watson.” Reilly was singled out by The Golden Globes for his performance as Oliver Hardy, covered in prosthetics and a fat suit to embody the beloved comedian.
Jeff Pope’s screenplay takes a look at the comedy duo at the end of their career, exploring not only the final performances, but the end of an era. While Reilly might be nominated in the comedy side of the Globes, there is quite a bit of sadness watching two aging performers succumb to the reality that they simply cannot continue or compete with the evolution of the entertainment business.
Laurel and Hardy had reached the top in 1937. They were the most famous comedians in America with movies, live shows and stand up tours around the country. However Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) had beef with a Twentieth Century Fox executive Hal Roach (Danny Huston), which resulted in the termination of Laurel’s contract and left Oliver Hardy (Reilly) to star along someone else. The duo called it quits for 16 years until their financial woes got the best of them. They reteamed for a European tour under new management in hopes that it would jumpstart their way back into movies. Laurel would write most of the gags and routines, while Hardy gambled his earnings and endangered his health. A bleak comeback with low audience attendance brings up the past, as the two former friends come to understand their partnership is more than just a business.
For those unfamiliar with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, this film doesn’t provide much background. It assumes the audience in front of the screen is already aware of the comedy legends, skipping over their more popular days in Hollywood to get to the point. Whether their interpretation is off, or the comedy of Laurel & Hardy just doesn’t translate to laughs in 2018, there is little to chuckle about. It’s hard to focus on anything but Reilly’s enormous chin prosthetics, when he is on screen. It’s the same type of chin used on Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard character in “Austin Powers.” Despite Reilly being singled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press, it’s actually Coogan who delivers the more resonating performance.
A scene where the two men are dragging a heavy trunk up a flight of stairs to their next train showcases how the comedy routine from their shows is a product of real-life circumstance. The script hints at the rise of television and reruns being the culprit for Laurel and Hardy’s deterioration. The closest thing to a laugh occurs when the comedians’ wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) unintentionally do a little skit of their own out of frustration. The film is more interested in hitting the plot points mostly derived out of location than giving the audience a real sense of who these men were. You leave with an idea, not an understanding, despite the very sweet and compromised conclusion that closes the book on Laurel and Hardy’s professional relationship.
Final Thought: A lackluster and unfunny look at one of America’s greatest comedy duos.