Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 15

The Sisters Brothers, and the Closing Gala for 2018: Stan & Ollie.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

One of the main questions that a few critics I talked with after the screening of Stan & Ollie (Grade: B) had was, “how do you think this is going to play to people that don’t know or care about Laurel & Hardy?” A fair question, given that their legacy in the comedy hall of fame is unquestionable, but they peddled a specific absurdist vaudeville routine designed heavily around tightly-timed slapstick which could potentially feel rather dated to today’s audiences. All broad and silly and campy in a very pantomime-y way which is, admittedly, showing its age a bit. But the smartest thing that Stan & Ollie does is work that meta-question into the very bones of the film itself. Director John S. Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) have made a Laurel & Hardy biopic that, yeah, is quite lightweight and happily devoted to biopic conventions, but also serves as a delightful reminder of how utterly inspired the old routines were, how magnetic performances and impeccable timing can make dulled genius shine again, and the joys of slapstick comedy.

To wit, following a short prologue in 1937 when the duo were the most beloved double-act in the world, our focus is on 1953 when Stanley Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) reunite for a tour of the United Kingdom after an acrimonious decade and a half. The pair haven’t lost a step with one another – still workshopping new routines and bits together with effortless chemistry, still goading each other into doing classic bits for the public, and Stan is still affectionately referring to Ollie as “babe” – but the world at large has mostly moved on. They can’t get the financing for films anymore, much of the public believe they hung it up years ago, and their big tour, which they’ve embarked on for both the money and in the hopes that they can ride its popularity into funding a Laurel & Hardy Meet Robin Hood movie Stan’s been working on, is playing to half-empty mid-sized venues seemingly beneath their iconic statuses.

So, the film’s narrative is all about Stan & Ollie becoming comfortable with the idea of being a legacy act, and the film on a meta-level kind of works like that of a legacy act, trotting out spot-on recreations of iconic Laurel & Hardy skits like the bus station double doors, the hat exchanges, and the Way Out West dance with the comforting zest of hearing an old favourite being played again for the first time in years. Several of these occur through clips of the duo performing their stage show, of course, but others still are worked into the non-stage parts of the story such as the bell routine or Stan playing with his hat or the duo pushing a very large and very heavy suitcase up several flights of stairs. It’s befitting a duo who were almost always ‘on’ every time they were around each other, always willing to bust out a routine to cheer up a member of the public, always brainstorming new material, always winding each other up, so that the lines between their screen-and-stage selfs and their private selfs effectively became non-existent.

Because the story of Laurel & Hardy is a love story. Two talented comedians paired up by chance due to a studio executive thinking their styles would mesh and the resulting connection, shared respect, and admiration from that pairing being stronger than most romantic relationships. Like most romantic relationships, it can be marred by personal betrayal and their own individual vices – Hardy made a picture without Laurel when the latter was fired after trying to fairly renegotiate their contracts, Laurel’s lying to Hardy about the funding for their Robin Hood film, and the pair have alcohol and gambling addictions that Laurel is kicking better than Hardy – but they always find their ways back to each other in the end. Coogan and Reilly might not strike up that kind of chemistry since it’s near-enough impossible to do so, but they do approximate something close to it which is the best one could have hoped for, and that’s with Reilly being afflicted with some hilariously terrible (and honestly needless) prosthetic work. Stan & Ollie is stolen outright, though, by the surprise lightning-in-a-bottle comic duo of Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their often-bickering wives, Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel. The pair’s crack comic timing, note-perfect line deliveries, and the fire/oil personalities of their characters produce bigger and more frequent guffaws than almost the entire rest of the movie combined, whilst the screenplay otherwise avoids sexist cliche by having them genuinely wanting the best for their husbands instead of being controlling harpies breaking up the band.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that Stan & Ollie is some kind of enduring masterpiece that I or you will want to see again and again. It is, after all, emotionally simplistic and surface-level deep, even the film’s examination of how the entertainment industry uses and discards stars like a slaughterhouse does cattle is limited to some brief dialogue about how Laurel & Hardy make pittance with no ownership rights of their work and a shot of Laurel looking pensively at a poster for Abbot & Costello Go to Mars. A crowdpleaser is what Stan & Ollie is, an unashamed one at that, and I have always said that I have no problems with shallow crowdpleasers so long as the notes are played skilfully enough. Films like these are popular for a reason, after all, and it’s that warm, fuzzy feeling they provide, which Stan & Ollie does in abundance. This is a sweet, sincere little trifle with a lot of laughs and a lot of heart which succeeds at its modest aims with aplomb. And on a personal note, after the fortnight of this Festival, this was exactly the kind of film I needed to close out my time here with. Something bright, sweet, that sent me to my train with a spring in my step.

Thanks to this forty-car-pile-up of a fortnight’s schedule and workload, though – one that also involved having to haul ass from the HomeStay I was at for most of this trip over to a Travelodge on the other side of the city after the A Private War screening on Saturday because of changing screening dates necessitating an additional night’s stay I hadn’t originally planned for – it’s not the last film of this year’s Festival that I’m covering. It could have been, but after Travelodge checking-in on the Saturday I just collapsed onto the bed for two hours and did absolutely nothing. So, instead, we’re time-warping all the way back to Friday afternoon and making this a John C. Reilly-centric day with Jacques Audiard’s already-out-in-America The Sisters Brothers (Grade: B).

An offbeat Western (the only kinds that people seem to make anymore) based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt, the film follows Eli (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix continuing his good year), brothers and assassins for the local Commodore (Rutger Hauer). They are infamously good at what they do and possess the kind of luck with regards to staying alive that shocks even Eli, who’s in his mid-30s despite their line of work. It’s the early 1850s, a time of great expansion and growth for the untamed West, which the Sisters are going to get a close-up view of on their latest assignment: find and kill a man called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm is being tracked by a hired detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), with orders to keep him detained until the Sisters catch up to them, but things aren’t as straightforward as they appear. Warm hasn’t actually stolen anything from the Commodore and is, in reality, a chemist with a radical new method of finding gold that the brothers are supposed to torture out of him, a fact that appals all but Charlie, the Sister brother who has a natural knack for killing.

Therefore, The Sisters Brothers is a movie of two halves. The first involves getting the four wayward travellers to the point where they can finally cross paths with one another, taking a sort of episodic turn as Charlie and Eli saunter into gunfights, piss off an entire town, and try a shortcut that ends with a giant spider crawling into Eli’s mouth when he’s sleeping (the resultant reaction almost killing him). The second involves the foursome deciding to sack off a society that wants them dead and running off to test out Warm’s solution in the hopes of retirement money and a stockpile for a brighter future. Warm is an idealist, you see, a man who believes, in spite of everything he’s seen and all the shit he’s been through, that there is the capacity for true good in this world if the parameters are just right and the worst of human nature that the West encourages are dissuaded. He doesn’t even want to personally get rich from his potential gold-rush haul, instead desiring to channel the funds into a company he’ll base in Texas that will allow him to fund such a society. He’s a man cruelly born before his time, but his thinking has a way of swaying those who don’t immediately call him crazy or try to kill him, particularly John Morris whose relationship with Warm effectively turns into a non-explicit Brokeback Mountain remake by the time the Sisters catch up with them.

Charlie, meanwhile, represents the destructive id of the West in full force. Eli is in this business because of a lack of other suitable options and a desire to keep his brother out of fatal trouble, but Charlie likes it. He’s the guy who stumbles into town drunk and feigns being unable to remember what unconscionable thing he did the following morning, who deliberately provokes tetchier townsfolk so that he has an excuse to shoot someone, who ribs his brother over every little thing but can’t take any criticism sent his way, and whose only solution to any problem is more violence. To just keep killing and killing until either there’s nothing left to kill or Charlie himself is dead. There is a tragic reason as to why he’s like this, of course, but it doesn’t excuse his pathological self-destruction, the effects of which (as they always do) soon stretch outward of Charlie and begin also destroying the good in and of other people’s lives as well. This is a role that Phoenix can play in his sleep, but that also leads to the most relaxed performance I’ve seen of his in an age. He slides into a natural chemistry with Reilly – who, let’s face it, could probably generate natural chemistry with a tube gate if you made them both screen partners – that’s believably brotherly and it’s what makes the film. Ditto Gyllenhaal and Ahmed as Morris and Worm; Ahmed especially is so good that it makes complete sense that Morris would up sticks and follow Worm with true devotion because I would have too.

Even without my fatigue from a fortnight of doing this and the two day delay between viewing the film and penning the review, I’d likely still have difficulty putting together a decent review of The Sisters Brothers. Not because the film’s bad or mediocre or anything like that, heavens no. Rather, it’s that annoying kind of great film that’s missing some unknown kick to make it a Great Film but any criticisms you attempt to dredge up in order to justify really enjoying but not loving it feel disingenuous to type. Example: maybe the film’s first half feels a little disjointed and aimless, especially tonally, considering where the film ends up, but that’s in retrospect and it’s all still entertaining and thematically relevant – demonstrating the growing disillusionment in the West by the Sisters and pushing them to a point where they do what they do when they finally catch up with Warm and Morris. Director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, making his English-language debut) luxuriates in the darkly-comedic mood, his screenplay (co-written by Thomas Bidegain) is well-balanced in all facets, and the cast are all excellent and elevate the film higher than it otherwise may have gone. There’s nothing spectacular about The Sisters Brothers, it’s just a very good and highly enjoyable movie that may not excel but is an ideal way to spend one’s time nonetheless. The quintessential B-grade movie; pains in the ass to review, but always a joy to watch.

Tomorrow: we close out coverage for 2018 with personal reflections on my experience this year and the best of the Fest.

Callie Petch has been up late six nights in a row.

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