STAN & OLLIE. Chefs, even impassioned eaters, will often credit their grandmothers with the inspiration to pursue their passion. I only got to know my paternal grandmother; she wasn't much of a cook. She was, however, a devout comedy acolyte eager to share the tenets of her beliefs. And so my younger brother and I were introduced to The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy in no particular order. Also to slightly more contemporary television comedy like Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers and, somewhat incongruously, syndicated reruns of Laverne and Shirley, which may have more to do with our nascent taste than hers, already so clearly well-established. She had a telling anecdote from the time she lived above a funeral parlor and would have to turn down Sanford and Son, lest the laugh track distract the mourners.
Point being, she caught us early enough to proactively construct the framework of our system of comedy belief. Absent a more formalized/dogmatic construct, it remains my primary faith. And it instilled in me a reverence for the godheads of modern movie comedy (I don't recall talking about vaudeville or stand-up but it's a big tent). Sure, I often and loudly bemoan the current state of humor in cinema but I like to think that is largely due to my grandmother's timely shaping influence that I have a strong sense of what works comically and what doesn't, which happen to be most of the ostensible "comedy" movies that roll out these days.
Laurel and Hardy were secondary figures for me but I always had a sense of their importance and place in the pantheon. So too, presumably, did screenwriter Jeff Pope, who penned this occasionally dewy-eyed paean to the formidable duo in the sunset years of their career.
The movie opens in 1937, when Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) are at the peak of their popularity. They're also a little cash-strapped, due to both the ruthlessness of their producer Hal Roach and their shared propensity for marriage and divorce. Stan's contract is set to expire and he is adamant that the duo should leverage this fact for more money. Ollie (Babe to his friends), feels less inclined to court conflict. This leads to a brief period of separation, during which the latter makes an elephant picture for Roach, the former conspicuously absent.
Sixteen years later, their star has faded and the two find themselves in England on the eve of a whirlwind tour. Stan has convinced Ollie that the motive is to drum up awareness and financial support for their planned Robin Hood movie. This isn't entirely a prevarication: He's written a script they constantly rehearse and revise, and he has made tentative contact with a producer. Said financier becomes increasingly elusive as the tour wears on, even as the initially dismal audiences grow in size and enthusiasm. Stan continues to conceal the by-now assured fate of the movie project from his partner; the show must go on. And as it does, the legends air out their interpersonal grievances right along with their shop-worn but sturdy material. Stan has never forgiven Babe for making a movie without him, nor has Babe forgiven himself. Babe has tried to fill his life with something beyond work, though, unlike Stan. The trying circumstances of the last-gasp tour wear on the two old friends until they're at each other's throats.
Wilting flowers among us need not fret, though. Pope's treatment of the material, and that of director Jon S. Baird, never really affords any lasting animus or palpable tension. Which is not to say it's a poor rendering of the events. It's well-imagined and competently assembled. And the lead performances, predictably, are astoundingly immersive and charming. But the whole thing feels too gingerly handled, a story that has a happy-enough ending because we wouldn't have wanted it any other way. PG. 97M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
SERENITY. Film noir remains one of the most vital, coolly exciting genres in American cinema. But it appears to have become more and more difficult to assay successfully. Every few years (decades?), though, somebody wins through: I'm thinking of Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981 goddamnit was it that long ago?) or Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler (2014). Steven Knight is a screenwriter of some stature, not to mention imagination and knowledge of historical context, and he's gotten a lot of scripts produced in recent years. His name, along with a powerful cast and a trailer suggesting sweaty Caribbean head-trips made me excited about Serenity. Having seen it I ... well ... it's hard to say.
The sketch: Troubled fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) had decamped, with his Iraq War PTSD, to remote Plymouth Island, where he drinks a lot of rum and pursues an elusive giant tuna and is paid for sex by a shadowy woman (Diane Lane). His sometime deckhand Duke (Djimon Hounsou) serves as his erstwhile conscience. One day, the mother of Baker's child, Karen (a weirdly blonde Anne Hathaway) appears on the island with a desperate offer of $10 million to murder her incomprehensibly abusive husband (Jason Clarke). Things fall apart.
Because I've been a fan of Knight's work and because so much of it evinces intelligence and wit, I have a feeling this is an allegory full of references I haven't figured out. But the movie is so incoherent, so unsatisfying, that I doubt anything would be gained in solving the puzzle. R. 106M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill