Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are winning raves for their turns as comedy legends Laurel and Hardy in Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie. Opening with a six-minute tracking shot that sends the pair on a triumphant march to the set of their classic Way Out West, the movie soon plunges from the peak of the stars’ partnership to the slump they experienced in the 1950s when they toured Britain in an attempt to win back the hearts of audiences. This skillful portrait of one of the most beloved comedic acts of Hollywood’s golden age had its world premiere as the closing night presentation of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and so far it’s been warmly received, though some reviewers have expressed a few reservations.
Most critics agree with Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist when he observes that this is “a relatively thin story, but in fairness, the film exists mainly as a showcase for Coogan and Reilly’s performances as the iconic duo.” Lyttelton even goes so far as to suggest that “the movie is so laser targeted on the grey-dollar audience it’s aimed at that it almost feels condescending.” In a similar, though more forgiving vein, Nathaniel Rogers proposes that one “could actually argue that Stan & Ollie is a double nostalgia act, perhaps unintentionally, since it moves and feels so much like an early ’90s arthouse pic that it might have worn the Miramax logo back in the day.”
But those performances! When Coogan and Reilly “retrace classic sketches beat for beat, it is like watching art restorers bringing faded Caravaggios back to life,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “And when they showcase one never-before-filmed skit, titled Birds of a Feather—a silent, absurdist waiting- room farce of doors to nowhere and missed connections—it feels as if they are dragging a previously undiscovered Old Master up from the basement.” And Variety’s Guy Lodge adds that “a secondary, more peppery personality duel between Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, both ideally cast as the comedians’ contrastingly skeptical wives Lucille and Ida, more surprisingly lands many of the film’s loudest laughs.” Little White Lies’ David Jenkins goes further, arguing that Henderson and Arianda “are so far and away the strongest elements of the film, it’s hard to comprehend why they weren’t pushed further to the fore.”
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