COMIC DRAMA; 1hr 37min
STARRING: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly
Another nice mess: Coogan (left) and Reilly make their moves
In 1937, Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) are Hollywood stars at the peak of their illustrious comedic powers. But fame has always been a fickle mistress, and 16 years later they’re dining on humble pie. The winsome duo has aged, its public lustre has dimmed and as the lads kick off their last-hurrah stage tour of Britain, the second-tier venues they’ve been consigned to are sparsely attended.
With a possible movie deal in their sights, Stan and Ollie soldier on like the affable pros they are. As luck and the entertainment gods would have it, their old magic is still abundant, percolating through performances that escalate into a gratifying smash, but backstage all is far from well. An obese Ollie is in failing health, that future film deal is shaping up as smoke and mirrors, and Stan is nursing a corrosive sense of betrayal.
Since comedy is a famously serious business, it feels apt that Filth director Jon S. Baird and Philomena screenwriter Jeff Pope’s treatment of the clown kings is refreshingly low-key, leaving a mind-blowing Coogan and Reilly to steal the show. They’re phenomenal funny men, onstage with their flawlessly recreated antics and off as larrikins whose testing lives really are the flipsides of their art.
And yet, even as their tempers fray with the added input of their hyper-vigilant wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda), an overdue awareness begins to dawn on each of them of how much they mean to each other. Call that growing closeness grist to the touring mill, but what shines even more brightly than the master stroke performances is the love Stan and Ollie finally come to share. Moving and enduring, it’s an unexpected gift and a lesson in generosity for the ages.