Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston etc.
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
There are very few things as warming and pleasant as taking a trip down memory lane, recalling the fuzzy thoughts of a bygone childhood time when everything was laughter and escape. Escape in this instance came in the form of a black and white television box; while laughter came from watching arguably the greatest comedy double act in movie history on TV every early evening after school on BBC2. To be sure, my youth would have been a lot more depressing without Laurel and Hardy’s comedies to divert my mind away from family strife, school bullies and grey council estate existence.
Watching Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s comedies was a formative part of my early years and I have continued to be a fan of there work to this day. It’s incredible that, when I was a kid, films made nearly forty years before had me in uncontrollable fits of laughter. Even now classics such as: Laughing Gravy (1931), Way Out West (1937), The Music Box (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), County Hospital (1932), Busy Bodies (1933), Our Relations (1933), The Flying Deuces (1939) etc. to name just a few of their incredible output, retain the power to have me in stitches. Laurel’s skinny dumb man-child perfectly contrasted Hardy’s larger more confident, yet deluded leader of the two. Their comedy derived from their hapless misadventures, usually involving some new business venture or fish-out-of-water situation which resulted in anarchic chaos and silliness all round. But the comedy was not simple pratfalls but carefully constructed sight-gags, complex slap-stick set-pieces and constant battles with wives, girlfriends or authority figures.
After briefly establishing the characters of Stan and Ollie in Hollywood during 1937, the Jeff Pope scripted film moves to the United Kingdom in 1953. Here Laurel and Hardy’s star is on the wane and they have taken a music hall tour to try and make a few quid, while potentially getting a Robin Hood movie off the ground. With their health suffering, especially Hardy’s, due to excessive alcohol and food intake, the two begrudgingly go on tour while bitter acrimony simmers underneath. On top of that the tour is struggling due to a lack of promotion by Bernard Delfont and the whole thing looks like it could be a disaster. I must admit the film is not really that dramatic and stands more as a nostalgic tribute to the power of Stan and Ollie’s friendship and comedic relationship. Laurel is the workaholic always cracking wise and looking for the next gag, while Hardy is the more sociable and relaxed with an eye for the ladies and horses.
Jon S. Baird directs with a deft hand, yet he has two incredible actors in the lead roles. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are absolutely perfect as Stan and Ollie. Their mannerisms and comic timing in capturing the comedy duo are a joy to watch. Moreover, there’s a wistful pathos in the fact a great life journey is about to come to an end. Here, Coogan and Reilly bring a real warmth to the roles and as they resolve their tensions the over-riding emotion ultimately is love. As the tour continues they are joined by their wives, portrayed by Shirley Henderson and the scene-stealing, Nina Arianda. Their relationships at times reflects the hen-pecking women Stan and Ollie would find themselves chained to in their movies, but there’s clearly a lot of love on screen too. Lastly, despite their health issues Stan and Ollie are born entertainers, fully committed to the ethos that the show must go on.
Overall, Stan and Ollie is a wonderful paean to two of the greatest comedic actors that ever lived. It’s gentle in pace and drama but anchored by two mesmerising performances by Coogan and Reilly. Despite the low budget, the period locations and costumes are brilliantly designed, and I especially enjoyed seeing many recognizable London locations. The biggest highlight though throughout is the hilarious re-enactments of many of Laurel and Hardy’s famous sketches, songs and movie moments. These took me back to my youth and days of watching Stan and Ollie on that small black and white box at home, laughing my silly head off without a care in the world.
Executive producer(s): Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Robert B. Weide, Larry Charles, Erin O’Malley, Alec Berg etc.
Production company(s): HBO Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Starring: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove etc.
There’s absolutely no reason why a situation comedy about an aging, wealthy, neurotic and narcissistic Hollywood writer should be one of the most consistently funny comedy shows of the last twenty years. There’s no real substance or depth in Curb Your Enthusiasm; in fact not much really happens of great value as it occurs in a “Larry David / Hollywood” bubble. Moreover, in anti-hero Larry David you more often than not find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, due to the writing, cast and situations the humour is always pretty, pretty good!
After a six-year hiatus Larry David is back and nothing really has changed. The formula remains the same inasmuch as he gets himself in ridiculous situations upsetting everyone around him, resulting in the most farcical of comedic pay-offs. However, while many of the narrative reveals can be seen a long way off it doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. Special highlights during Season 9 are JB Smoove’s scene-stealing turns as Larry’s “house-guest” Leon Black; who over the course of the last few seasons has inveigled his way into Larry’s life. The two have become an unlikely double act as uncool Jewish bald guy buddies up with his cooler, streetwise and “player” pal. With Leon and Larry you get a relationship which both reflects and satirizes racial stereotypes to funny effect.
While most of the Season 9 episodes work as stand-alone stories the integral over-riding arc involves Larry David writing a new Broadway show. Inspired by events which occurred to novelist Salman Rushdie, Larry has written a musical called, incredibly, Fatwa! At first everyone loves the idea and rushes to invest. However, when Larry mocks the Ayatollah on the Jimmy Kimmel show he himself is, you’ve guessed it, hit with a Fatwa!! The running gags throughout created by this comedic narrative are very broad, un-PC, stereotypically offensive; but also bloody hilarious. I wondered why there wasn’t more controversy; however, Larry David himself is the butt of many of these jokes as he fails to lift the Fatwa.
The season is crammed with celebrity appearances and particular standouts are: Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Banks, F. Murray Abraham; and Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda. The latter hilariously clashes with Larry during the production of the Fatwa: The Musical. There are also some great gags relating to everyday observations including: Uber ratings; pickle jars; tipping; disturbances in kitchens; Asperger’s; plus many more. The episode, Running with the Bulls, with Bryan Cranston portraying Larry’s harangued therapist, was probably my favourite. It was also great to see The Mighty Boosh comedy nut-case Rich Fulcher make an appearance as an evasive Restaurant Manager. Overall, the season was pretty scatter-gun in it’s target humour but it certainly hit the mark throughout. I’m just amazed, in these liberal-PC-social-media-offence-driven times there wasn’t more controversy. Having said that Larry David probably wouldn’t care as in his own words, “I have reservations about everything I do.”
Getting on stage and making a room full of strangers laugh spontaneously through a joke, impression, improvisation, song etc. is arguably one of the mightiest challenges facing a performer. But for many successful stand-up comedians the thrill of reducing a room to shakes of laughter is not enough; hence why so many have attempted to transfer their undoubted comic and acting artistry to the silver screen. Plus there’s more dough involved in making movies. As a massive fan of both cinema and stand-up comedy I thought it interesting to look at some of the best dramatic performances committed to celluloid by stand-up comics.
Eddie Murphy – 48 Hours (1982)
Before Eddie Murphy single-handedly set about making his very own list of the worst movies ever made he took his raw, rap, crack and pop stand-up persona and committed to screen great performances in Trading Places (1983) Beverley Hills Cop (1984) and Walter Hill’s rock hard-boiled 48Hours (1982). Buddied-up with Nick Nolte’s life-frazzled cop, Murphy was perfectly cast as cool convict Reggie Hammond. Murphy is tough, uncompromising and funny: spitting out classic dialogue such as “I’ve been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows” – with a verve that is sorely missing from virtually all his film output of the last 15 years.
Woody Allen – Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)
Arguably, Allen’s recent movies have not been up to the quality of his earlier “funnier” films but I like them nonetheless as he has consistently produced work rich with great lines, ideas and characters. In the 1980’s Allen’s films matured and more often than not centred around familial, human and sexual relationships. As well as writing and directing Allen also acted in most of his films using his Jewish, neurotic, angsty persona to comic and dramatic effect. In Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) he delivers another fine performance drawing out pathos, empathy and pain as a documentary filmmaker who is trying to make sense of life and why we are on this planet. The film is multi-stranded with a wonderful ensemble cast including Alan Alda and Martin Landau on particularly great form.
Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple (1985)
Multi-talented Emmy, Oscar, Tony winner Goldberg is one of the most versatile comedian/actors to grace the stage and screen. She developed her abilities at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Comedy troupe where her work and would then be cast in Spielberg’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1985). While Goldberg would earn an Oscar for her over-the-top turn in potter’s-wheel-ten-hankie-weepie Ghost (1990), but it is her first ever screen appearance which will stay in the memory. Goldberg’s Celie Johnson is a character battered and beaten by life but whom amidst the misery and abuse retains a strength and desire to not let life destroy her. Goldberg brings a tremendous innocence, fortitude and compassion to the part; and considering it is her first ever movie role it is an amazing achievement.
Will Ferrell – Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell cut his comedy fangs in The Groundlings, an LA improv group, and would later take his comic creations onto Saturday Night Live. Hilarious turns as hick racing driver Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights (2006) and more famously as Ron Burgundy – the king of unreconstructed male chauvinist stupidity – in Anchorman (2004) would cement Ferrell’s success as a movie actor. Famous for stupid haircuts, overcharged yelling and screen-mugging Ferrell toned it down as tax inspector Harold Crick in Marc Forster’s moving dramedy, Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell’s Crick is a lonely individual, a man of routine and commonplace whose life is turned topside down when he hears his every move being narrated by Emma Thompson’s meta-omnipotent author. As he struggles to find ‘the voice’ Crick begins to question his whole existence and this gives Ferrell the opportunity to live a character with depth and emotion hitherto unseen in his previous screen caricatures.
Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
While Chris Rock arguably takes the stand-up comic kudos between these two graduates of influential American sketch show, In Living Color, Foxx’s film career has flourished with a series of fantastic movie performances. But it was playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004) that Foxx left Rock’s movie career, in comparison, eating the proverbial dust sandwich. Of course it won him the Oscar but it was more than just an impression of Charles as Foxx gave this musical genius a flawed humanity and pain that moved both the audience and the Academy. Foxx threw himself into the role with abandon musically and dramatically, showing Charles’ darker addictive side as well as his magnetism, humour and incredible drive. Unsurprisingly, the same year, Foxx was also nominated for his sterling work in Mann’s urban noir Collateral losing out in that category to the king-of-expositional-voiceover Morgan Freeman.
Robin Williams – One Hour Photo (2002)
A running trope in this list finds many of the acts turning their manic comedic persona on its’ head and internalizing the mania or psychosis with understated performances. Indeed, I have read articles which link certain mental states with the comedic mind and in Robin Williams you could not get a more manic, fevered, out-of-this-world performer. After a slow start cinematic success would arrive eventually and I could have chosen Good Will Hunting (1997) or Good Morning Vietnam (1987) or Dead Poet’s Society (1989)as these were great roles for Williams. But in 2002 he took a couple of darker turns in Nolan’s pre-Batman thriller Insomnia and a lower-budget thriller called One Hour Photo. The latter found Williams playing a solitary Photo Technician who takes an unhealthy interest in one particular family. Yet Williams’ character is no ordinary psycho but rather a pained individual longing to be part of a family unit. The actor terrifies the audience with his obsessive nature but at the end the performance humanizes the character rather than making him a one-dimensional lunatic he could so easily of been.
Jim Carrey – Man On The Moon (1998)
Carrey is an absolute force of nature as a stage and sketch performer and brought that dynamic physicality, silly voices and zany gurning to great effect in films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). As he gained further success he would stretch his acting muscles with more dramatic and riskier roles. He was ideally cast as Intergender Wrestling Champion of the world Andy Kaufmann and (best known for his role in U.S. sitcom Taxi) and also doubled-up by playing Kaufmann’s alter-ego Tony Clifton (with Paul Giamatti.) Kaufmann was arguably the very first anti-comedian; gaining laughs or at the very least trying to get laughs from being deliberately unfunny and antagonistic. Carrey takes on all the incarnations with much skill and humour and rather than be just a very good impression he zones his usual mania, creating a complex character whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The film was criticized by some for taking liberties with Kaufmann’s life and it was a relative failure at the box office, but Carrey deservedly won many awards and nominations for his diverse performance.
Billy Connolly – The Debt Collector (1997)
Connolly’s performance in Mrs Brown would be the most obvious choice for Scotland’s imperious stand-up comedy legend, however, I’m not a fan of films about the Royal Family and the brutal Debt Collector is more to my taste. The Big Yin is compelling in this grim, gritty thriller inspired by career criminal turned artist/novelist, Jimmy Boyle. Connolly’s working class and artistic background also resonates in the Nicky Dryden character trying to go straight; only to be pursued relentlessly by Ken Stott’s obsessive cop. Connolly’s raconteurial, larger-than-life stand-up style is in complete contrast to the serious character of Dryden who having escaped the mean streets of snooker halls of Glasgow is now a feted figure on the art scene. Stott’s vindictive cop cannot abide Dryden’s success and sets about bringing Dryden down. The scenes between Connolly and Stott are the stand-out in this dark, violent tale which is unflinching in tone and certainly darker than anything Connolly has been in before or since.
Richard Pryor – Blue Collar (1980)
Paul Schrader wrote existential urban Western Taxi Driver (1976) but also directed some compelling dramas. Blue Collar is probably his best film and it is my favourite Richard Pryor performance. Pryor had reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian shifting his persona from likeable TV friendly gag-man to a snarling, coked-up, angry social satirist. He would roughen out the edges of this act to become the slick, effervescent and honest performer who turned the dramas and stories of his life into comedy gold. Pryor would be a natural comic force on silver screen and formed a fine double act with Gene Wilder. However, Blue Collar is the best film I saw him in as it combines the humour, drama and social commentary that Pryor himself included in his act. Set in Detroit it highlights the hypocritical machinations of Union practices at a car plant. Pryor provided some humour but his character shows an anger and energy throughout which may or may not have been fuelled by his Olympic coke-taking. Egos clashed among cast (including Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel) and crew and it shows on screen in a fiery examination of the working class man and his lot.
Jerry Lewis – The King Of Comedy (1983)
To be able to steal the acting honours from Robert DeNiro at the height of his golden acting period takes some beating. But that is what old-school-crazed-slapstick-movie-mad-man Jerry Lewis did in Scorcese’s dramedy about obsessives. DeNiro is funny, embarrassing and tragic as the bottom-runged comedian but Lewis’ performance as hangdog, lonely and jaded chat-show host Jerry Langford stole the show. Langford, a successful TV presenter, remains at the height of his career but lives a seemingly lonely life with just his work for company. On the surface a decent guy but underneath he’s a jaded workaholic. DeNiro’s Pupkin enthusiastic, aspirational, hero-worshipping comic stalks him and becomes Langford’s own worst nightmare. There are so many painful scenes of toe-curling embarrassment in this movie notably when deluded Pupkin invites himself to Langford’s country retreat. When Langford is left at the mercy of Sandra Bernhard’s unhinged harpy Lewis’ performance is one of raging deadpan as he simmers with rage until he bursts like a pustule on escape and leaps down the road with tape around his ankles like bicycle clips. A truly under-rated gem of a performance and film.
Eric Bana – Chopper (2000)
Australian actor Bana started off in stand-up and TV sketch shows and was a novice dramatically speaking when cast as violent-criminal-turned-best-selling-novelist Marc Brandon Read. Given his comedic background Bana’s rendition is very funny but ultimately there is a dark drama and bloody violence too in the representations of this powerhouse of the Melbourne underworld. His creation is a paranoid, angsty, neurotic monster capable of terrific rage one moment then over-powering guilt the next. It’s a rounded version of a split-personality both interested in robbing drug dealers but also with his own myth, persona and media representation. There’s some terrific dialogue and Aussie banter between Chopper and the various low-lifes he encounters; and some visceral violence, notably when Chopper gets his ears cut off to navigate a route out of jail. The film holds a mirror up to a twisted society which creates celebrities out of killers and those who act outside of the law and it is to Bana’s credit that he makes this monster funny and likeable despite his actions deserving the contrary.
Mo’Nique – Precious (2009)
I wasn’t aware of Mo’Nique’s background as a stand-up comedian when I first saw this heartwrenching drama, but after witnessing her incredible performance I did some research and found she worked her way up from the open-mic circuit of Baltimore to the lofty heights of Best Supporting Actress. Her character Mary Lee Johnson is an emotionally-damaged-dysfunctional-car-crash-human-bully who puts her daughter Precious (equally brilliant Gabourey Sidibe) through all manner of abuse and neglect. As horror after horror befalls the story’s heroine her mother sits on the sofa barking, castigating, demanding; making her life a living hell. It’s a monstrous creation but one which is not without compassion as shown in one of the final scenes in the film where Mary Lee Johnson, in tears, asks, “Who was gonna love me?” And the strength of the performance is that we almost feel bad for this woman. Almost.
Steve Martin – The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin’s film career is quite similar to Eddie Murphy’s inasmuch as his early films matched the brilliance and energy of his stand-up career only to find him moving later to more sub-par-Hollywood-generic-remakes like Bilko. But you can’t blame a performer wanting to make a living and Martin is one of the great Renaissance Men. He also wrote of one of the greatest books I’ve read about comedy: Born Standing Up. As an actor he’s always really funny playing downtrodden man-children or idiots happy to send himself up gaining laughs from crazed anger while remaining totally unthreatening; e.g. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). In David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner he played against type with a sinister turn in this cold, twisting thriller. Martin underplays throughout with intelligence and handles Mamet’s crisp dialogue with aplomb. It’s a fine film and performance utilising his linguistic skills expertly and I have no Clouseau why he didn’t go darker more often.