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John C. Reilly had some trepidation about playing screen legend Oliver Hardy. It’s the first thing we talked about when I interviewed him on December 3, 2018. Reilly’s process in getting to yes reveals an actor who not only admires Hardy’s legacy, but also respects the audience he hopes will embrace the film.
They should. Focusing on Laurel & Hardy’s final tour, when their fame was being eclipsed, and their unresolved issues with one another keep bubbling to the surface, is more than just a bio-pic. It’s a portrait of a profound love story complete with all complicated emotions that come with a working relationship between two people who may be polar opposites, but are also acutely aware of their need for one another, personally and professionally. Reilly went on to discuss gender balance, rediscovering lost arts, and the finer points of a fat suit
The way Reilly becomes Oliver Hardy in STAN & OLLIE is nothing short of magical. It’s not just the prosthetics that add girth, or the uncanny recreation of Hardy’s idiosyncratic way of speaking that was part faux British, part Georgia drawl. It’s the way he has channeled the iconic comedian’s lightness of spirit as well as his comic timing. For fans of the duo whose show business career started in the silent and went strong through the early talkies, it’s a welcome relief to see how Reilly and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel recreate one of their best known dances (from 1937’s WAY OUT WEST), as well as how they reimagine several skits using only notes from their live show. For me, the best tribute was Stan and Ollie devise an impromptu light entertainment for a desk clerk, something completely original, yet undeniably catching the spirit and the soul of what made them timeless. Reilly and Coogan, proven comedic talents also have the gift of pathos, and the understanding of how integral it is to comedy that is about more than mere guffaws.
The film itself dwells on their last tour. It’s the 1950s, times and tastes have changed, and the pair are working through England with a stage show that they hope will revive their film careers. The ups and downs of their personal and professional relationships come to light as their mutually detesting wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) provide an unexpectedly tart comic relief to a very serious story about the fickle nature of fame, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. Richly produced, sensitively directed by Jon S. Baird (with tracking shots that seem impossible), and a script as nuanced and complex as the performances that Reilly and Coogan use to conjure both Laurel and Hardy and a bittersweet paean to the show biz itself.
The film co-stars Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, and Danny Huston. It was directed by Jon S. Baird from a script by Jeff Pope. Reilly’s previous work includes WALK HARD: THE DEWY COX STORY, CYRUS, and CHICAGO.