Review – Not a Mess and Very Fine (“Stan & Ollie”)

Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Cheech & Chong. In the annuals of famous comedy teams, there were none more famous than Laurel & Hardy. Rail-thin Stan Laurel from England and portly American Oliver Hardy were paired up in 1927 and set the slapstick comedy world on fire with their hilarious antics for decades.

We pick up their story in 1937 where the boys, hotter than ever in show biz, are having troubles during the making of their Western comedy, Way Out West. Y’see, this brilliant  comedic duo couldn’t be any different: Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) is the brains behind the act; intelligent, financially responsible, and the team’s comedy writer, he puts up with his 300lb partner, Oliver Hardy (unrecognizable John C. O’Reilly in heavy prosthetics) who drinks, smokes, gambles, and likes to get married… a lot. However, their movie contract with studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston) has reached an impasse and Oliver wants to negotiate. Again.

We fast-forward 16 years and the boys, weary and older, are starting the long-leg of a British stage tour, now that their American film days are pretty much over. Doing their cheesy, but nonetheless hilarious routines from the movies on stage, the crowds are sparse, but thanks to their scheming road manager, Bernard (Rufus Jones), soon their audience numbers grow to epic proportions. Even Stan & Ollie’s wives are thrilled when they join them. As Stan’s over-bearing Russian wife, Ida (Nina Arianda) pressures him to complete his proposed Robin Hood movie script, Ollie’s long-suffering wife, Lucille (Shirley Henderson) just wants “Babe” to keep his health due to his massive size.

As the tour continues, Stan & Ollie share secrets, old wounds are opened, and some of the funniest Laurel & Hardy bits are magically recreated on stage by two of the most gifted performers you’ll ever see. While screenwriter Jeff Pope (Essex Boys) is more famous for his movies & TV credits in Britain, this script is spot-on for the American actors portrayed that we all know and love here in the USA. And even though the setting is very British, the dramatic and poignant story of Laurel & Hardy is universal. Beautifully written, and without all that added schmaltz you see with most bio-pic’s these days. The dialogue is well crafted and real, giving us an honest, inside look at the two beloved aging performers that the world idolized.

Director Jon S. Baird (again, you’ll only know his British credits) adds layers to this melodrama with his simple camera work, letting O’Reilly & Coogan (both comedy masters) play with their characters who, by the way, so totally inhabit the real people they’re portraying, you completely forget about the astonishing make-up. Which brings me to these two exceptional actors, having to recreate iconic scenes from Laurel & Hardy’s past, and doing such an excellent job it’s jaw-dropping. I grew up with L&H short films and movies, and I can say without a doubt, that watching this movie was about as genuine as it gets in actually seeing L&H in real life. If these two do NOT get some kind of award for their performance, someone’s gonna pay!!

Bud & Lou (1978)

No one can hear the hilariously funny comedy bit “Who’s On First” and not think of the legendary comedy team of Abbott & Costello. Their amazing timing, their short-lived TV series, their wonderful movies, and especially their much publicized break-up has been the stuff of Hollywood fodder for decades.

Based on the book by Bob Thomas, this bio-pic only skims the surface of the boys meteoric rise to fame & fortune and subsequent crash & burn. Instead of telling the how’s and why’s of all their films and TV show (which are practically omitted here), this movie zeros in on their tumultuous relationship and downfall. Starting out in the seedy burlesque circuit, straight man Bud Abbott (Harvey Korman) meets struggling comic, Lou Costello (Buddy Hackett) as they form a sort of ‘marriage’ partnership. Lou soon learns that Bud suffers from epilepsy, which he keeps in check with alcohol, while Bud finds that Lou is an insufferable control-freak, bent on having everything his way.

But their partnership proves to be a match made in Heaven and soon, thanks to their new manager Eddie Sherman (Arte Johnson), they’re starring on the radio and getting their big break in the movies with Universal Pictures. . .even though Lou is a huge pain in the ass to Alan Randall (Robert Reed), the head of the studios. Through all the gin games Costello loves to play, his unexpected heart attacks, his troubled marriage to Anne (Michelle Lee), the tragic death of his infant son, and their partnership breaking up, Abbott & Costello face hardship after hardship, culminating with the IRS taking everything they have for unpaid back taxes.

Wikipedia has more about these guys than this movie ever tells, like: Abbott’s two wives or the possible affair he had with Anne, Costello’s three daughters or Anne’s death, their TV show, the maid that sparked their first break-up, Errol Flynn’s party porn film that may have provoked their second break-up, or Abbott hating to do a V/O for an Abbott & Costello cartoon series. The screenplay by Bob Thomas and George Lefferts leaves out all that and focus’ on the characters.

This made-for TV movie (you can see it for free on YouTube) does have some good points, though. Funny men Hackett and Korman, known for their comedic wit, really show-off their dramatic chops here, as well as comedians Michelle Lee and Arte Johnson (from TV’s Laugh-In). They embody Bud & Lou in their acting, although their comedic routines aren’t the best (their Who’s On First is flat and lethargic). Director Robert Thompson, who only did TV shows, does a fine job here, but the script needed more backstory and less dramatic tension. This is one sad, dismal, and depressing bio-pic, I must say!