The first thing to note about this film is its PG rating.
Don’t let it fool you. It’s more badge of distinction than Good Housekeeping
Seal of Approval. It pays homage to a specie of humor we associate with the
Vaudeville era when slapstick was king. It’s tempting to think of it as
belonging to a lower stratum of humor, like toilet jokes, until you see “Stan & Ollie,” which delivers it
artfully, snagging us at our most vulnerable: where rationalized fears and magical
thinking the inner child refuses to abandon, intersect.
Underneath his gift for gab, John C. Reilly’s offstage Oliver Hardy is a profligate. He has squandered his earnings at the track. Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel accepts that it falls to him to drive their conjoined career by pursuing tour dates, and fair contracts, though he clutches when he realizes that he lacks sufficient gumption to put up the kind of fight that wins victories. Worse, he can’t openly acknowledge his ineptitude, but his debt-saddled partner sees more deeply into Stan than Stan sees into himself.
A shared grace shelters Reilly and Coogan’s inspired acting talents from overexposure. It hovers over their re-creation of the subtle yet sublimely powerful humor that makes even repetitions of Ollie’s mannered nod or Stan’s deadpan mug, funny in their own right. Neither Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s disconsolate wife Lucille, nor Nina Arianda as Laurel’s luridly cosmopolite Ida, is played as the “woman behind the man,” the accessory that we are conditioned to let dangle. Fractiousness in their connubial loyalty and interpersonal conflicts resolves in a brief but moving gesture toward the film’s end. It stamps the era that built their backbone, and lends the film its spine. It makes you consider the calumnious portrayal of today’s Hollywood marriages, and multiple media violations of sacred offstage privacy meant to sell tabloids: Are their marriages any better or worse than yours and mine? In this foursome, we’re able to see ourselves in a light that most such stories distance us from.
Though Reilly deserved the Golden Globe he garnered for his Ollie performance, the secret weapon in this film is Steve Coogan’s Stan. Without Stan’s total immersion reality bath and flights from it, and ensuing conquests and losses of intestinal fortitude, the story would lose its traction and the duo their attraction. You feel like you know the Coogan who finesses his character’s irksome contradictions as well as you know your brother-in-law and his.
The “Age-appropriate!” rallying cry of the PG rating issues from the Parenting Era reliquary. It surfaced when late in life, Baby-Boomers in their post-Vietnam Thermidor, assumed the rigors of childrearing. Theirs was the first generation to sidestep unplanned pregnancies, helped along by reproductive rights victories scored by Second Wave mobilizations. With every conceivable nuance of the undertaking up for analysis and social engineering, a novel lexicon emerged side by side with a bill of entitlements, a middle class values inventory poised on a terrorist taxonomy of “shoulds.” Not astonishingly, in the front ranks of the pageant that gave rise to it, were men who stepped out of Reason’s shadows to solemnly announce, “’We’re pregnant.”
In my day, the way we learned whether our arrivals were planned was by eavesdropping on barroom exchanges that were anything but age appropriate. We rolled with the surprise punches they delivered, absent any expectation that parents would “model” exemplary behavior. The coy agnosticism of our forebears captured itself in the global caveat “Do as I say, not as I do.”
What I found shockingly not age-appropriate in those years
had little to do with sex, porn, or movie ratings. It came out of the blue, during
a small-business partnerships unit in high school Economics class, when I learned
that when one party to such a partnership dies, not only the partnership, but
the business itself automatically dissolves.
My grandfather Samuel Kreps was one half of Gardner & Kreps custom tailors. By dint of that family talisman and the labor necessary to make it marginally profitable, came rent for our four-room Bronx apartment, one bedroom of which I shared with Kreps. Dinner conversations ripened no thanks to parental “active listening,” but rather, Grandpa’s seemingly disinterested recounting of an illustrious customer’s utterances while the man’s measurements were being taken. “[J. Edgar] Hoover says they [the FBI] are ‘going through the motions’ to investigate the murders of the three civil rights workers.” Or “Dave Schwartz [the real name of “rag trade” mogul Jonathan Logan] says if you model his spring line for the buyers, whatever they put on you is yours to keep.” Or “That goniff Herman Cole, the scalper, was in today. You want to see ‘My Fair Lady’?”
Not only would we lose such Runyonesque accounts (and perks) upon my grandfather’s passing, but there would be no more trips to the seventh floor of 10 W. 47th Street, where Gardner & Kreps’ had its shop, no more greeting the smartly uniformed Asturian elevator operator in Castilian Spanish, nor delighting to Gardner’s expansive welcome “Hello Tootsie-Wootsie!” I was not even a minor-league Mrs. Maisel, but a slow trickle of that kismet seeped into our otherwise work-a-day lives thanks to Gardner & Kreps. If this is what is now labeled “white privilege,” it was destined to enjoy a short shelf life.
I didn’t have to wait long for the dreaded fall of the other shoe. Two years after Mr. Tolmach’s Economics class, my grandfather died, and, sure enough, Gardner & Kreps, with its award-winning suits, cut, sewn and pressed from “quality goods” by two of the best London-schooled designers and their expert tailors, was no more.
“Stan & Ollie,” had me revisiting such anxieties, appropriate to no age. Grandpa Kreps, the self-proclaimed (ex-) Bolshevik, who had earlier in his life sewn uniforms for the czar’s generals, once transplanted, became not only the renegade “entrepreneur,” but a gambler and bon vivant to boot. Gardner was his opposite: a prudent homebody who readied suits for impatient customers while svelte “dolls” dealt Grandpa into Atlantic City or Havana card games. There was little that was comic in Gardner and Kreps’s relationship, but it is hard to miss the parallels. Director Jon S. Baird’s light pass and screenwriter Jeff Pope’s gentle simmering, plate a tantalizing rendering of this uncommon, Pagliacci-a-deux partnership. Audiences of all ages can digest its flavors with an appreciation of the partners’ gifts, foibles, and subtle soulagements, where dissolution registers little more than a pang of loss for what can no longer sustain itself.
The deftness is all the more impressive when you consider
how lean and mean the dialogue can get: Hardy accuses Laurel of being a “hollow
man” who hides behind a typewriter. When Laurel’s negotiations with producer
Hal Roche fail, Laurel shouts out for all to hear, that the producer amounts to
nothing more than a notorious Mussolini-lover.
The story, set in the 1950s, opens toward the end of the
partners’ career. The men are reprising their work relationship several years
after Laurel broke it off because Hardy signed a solo contract with Roche
rather than hold out for a fair one for both partners. Resentments, seemingly
buried with the hatchet, reassert themselves when the cowardly Laurel deceives
Hardy about a contract in the offing. We are thrust into the backstage pain
which performers of every stripe camouflage, disown, or “medicate” in order to
keep working. Even custom tailors endure indignities required to make good on
the marketplace shibboleth that the customer is always right.
Seamless infiltration of “shtick,” derivative of
time-honored routines, into spontaneous offstage dialogue, acts as a proxy for
overusing cut-ins to original Laurel & Hardy footage. Such gimmickry might
be harder to resist were Coogan and Reilly not fully believable as they
masterfully inhabit their complex characters.
You don’t have to turn back time to escape the streamed diet of late night mediocrity that leans on coarse, anti-correctness humor, where counter-phobic cynicism vacates sophistication. “Stan and Ollie” walks us back to riches of unselfconscious artistry. It bubbles with imaginative comic energy. How joy-inspiring that a remnant of shame-free child-like pleasure remains with us, even in these X-rated yet interesting times.