Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.
But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny. The most inspired attempts at that kind of thing have used actors who have a kind of cracked comic gift themselves: Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Even when those uneven films aren’t clicking, you buy the concept. You’re really looking at someone unique.
Which brings us to Stan & Ollie, a new film that concentrates on a single period from the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The greatest comedy duo in showbiz history (this is not up for debate), Laurel and Hardy enjoyed enormous success together from the mid-1920s onward. The film’s concept is to catch the pair with their career in its sundown phase, as they embark on a live tour of Britain circa 1953. The houses are half-empty and an alleged movie deal with a European producer is almost certainly a pipe dream; meanwhile, the boys have some old issues to sort out. The material is sentimental, fairly tame, and partly fictionalized.
Anyway: Steve Coogan plays Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Hardy, and that’s what makes the film go. They re-create some classic routines, with obvious affection; these are performers who understand comedy in their bones. Coogan is a gifted mimic (Google “Steve Coogan” + “Michael Caine” and enjoy), and he builds a precise re-creation of Laurel’s voice and gestures. Coogan’s fussiness works for the role, too: Laurel was the creative mind behind the duo’s routines, and Coogan makes you suspect Laurel might have been a little envious of his partner’s ability to goof off and have fun. If Coogan does a splendid impersonation, Reilly gives a full performance as “Babe” Hardy. This is a moving look at an easygoing guy, in bad health and aware of his declining abilities, who might be participating in this sketchy tour just to please his old friend.
Stan & Ollie has a bonus: screenwriter Jeff Pope (he wrote Coogan’s Philomena) and director Jon S. Baird make room for a second comedy duo. Stan and Ollie’s wives, Ida (an uproarious Nina Arianda) and Lucille (tiny Shirley Henderson), respectively, get their own comic energy going — Ida a Russian bossypants, Lucille a wry peacemaker. These two great actresses could easily carry a movie on their own, and they add just the right dash of salt to prevent Stan & Ollie from reducing itself to a nostalgic stew.