Beloved comedy duo tries for a comeback

By Richard Ades

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John C. Reilly (left) as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie is an entertaining story for all viewers, but it’s a special treat for anyone who’s seen old Laurel and Hardy flicks. Besides being physically transformed to look like these iconic comedians, stars John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan do a great job of incorporating the pair’s mannerism into their portrayals.

Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is especially spot-on, right down to his eye-rolling exasperation at his friend’s antics. Coogan’s Stan Laurel is slightly less recognizable, but that’s partly because he’s revealed to be the duo’s leader, the hard-working guy who creates their routines and arranges their business deals. It seems the real-life Laurel had little in common with the simpleton he played in films and onstage.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope bases the story on an actual tour Laurel and Hardy undertook in the UK in 1953, a few years after their cinematic career had faded to black.

We learn that Laurel is convinced the tour will spark a comeback by helping them land a deal to film their own take on the Robin Hood legend. In order to accomplish this, however, he and Hardy have to prove they can still attract and amuse the paying public. Unfortunately, tour organizer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) has booked them in second-rate theaters that garner little attention. Only after they agree to take part in publicity stunts that recreate old comedy bits do they begin to catch fire with the British public.

Director Jon S. Baird lends a gentle and loving touch to the tale, whether it delves into nostalgic comedy or bittersweet drama. Flashbacks reveal that a contract dispute some 16 years in the past nearly broke up the team, sparking resentments that still linger. Hardy’s health is another concern. He always presented a rotund contrast to his thin partner, and he’s gained even more weight over the years. The grueling tour proves to be a challenge, first to his stamina and eventually to his very existence.

Every cast member delivers a well-crafted portrayal, even in minor roles such as a doting fan or a hotel clerk who marvels that the pair is still performing. In a welcome addition to the tale’s second half, spouses Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitseva Laurel (Nina Arianda) arrive from America to reunite with their hubbies. The Russian-born Ida, a frankly outspoken former performer, is particularly amusing.

For Laurel and Hardy fans, the flick offers the chance to revisit the kind of comedy routines that made the pair beloved the world over, along with insights into the real-life people behind the laughs. For everyone else, it’s a warm-hearted but never maudlin reverie on age, fame and friendship.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Stan & Ollie (PG) opens Jan. 25 at AMC Lennox Town Center 24, AMC Easton Town Center 30, the Drexel Theatre, the Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema.

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A portrait of the jurist as a young woman

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Felicity Jones (center) as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex

By Richard Ades

After seeing last year’s documentary RBG, it was easy to understand how Ruth Bader Ginsburg nodded off during President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. The film depicts the Supreme Court justice as a lifelong workaholic who treats sleep as a low priority. Though she admitted that wine played a role in her televised catnap, it could also be that the long hours simply caught up with her.

For an understanding of just why Ginsburg is such a sleep-deprived dynamo, see the new biopic On the Basis of Sex. It suggests that late hours became a habit when she was a young law student.

As depicted in the film, Ruth (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are attending Harvard Law School in the 1950s when Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rather than allow him to fall behind in his studies, Ruth starts attending Marty’s classes as well as her own. Add the motherhood duties required by their baby daughter, and sleep becomes a luxury.

Despite a dire prognosis, Marty somehow survives his cancer. So does the movie, though it’s touch and go for a while. Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman take advantage of Marty’s illness to depict Ruth as a loving, selfless wife and mother. Doubtless she was, but their syrupy, sentimental approach reduces her to little more than a generic romantic heroine rather than the determined woman who would one day become a groundbreaking supporter of sexual equality.

Ginsburg’s feminist sentiments do come out in scenes that show the challenges she faces as one of Harvard’s earliest female law students. In an incident that would be unbelievable if it weren’t verified by the documentary, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks the female students why they’re taking up spots that should have gone to men. Subtly mocking his patriarchal mindset, Ginsburg responds that she wants to understand her husband’s field so she can be a more “patient” wife.

Despite such scenes, the flick doesn’t really hit its stride until Marty, as an established tax lawyer, introduces Ruth, as a law professor, to the case from which the title is derived. A Colorado man (Chris Mulkey) wants to claim a tax deduction to help pay for nursing care for his invalid mother, but the law says the deduction is available to women but not to single men like himself.

Recognizing a chance to start questioning the myriad of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, Ruth is eager to take on the case. The struggle that ensues, exacerbated by the realization that she’s going up against decades of precedents that support traditional gender roles, is historically fascinating.

Speaking of gender roles, actor Hammer offers a sympathetic depiction of Marty Ginsburg as a man ahead of his time when it comes to his support and appreciation of his talented wife. As that wife, Jones is hampered by a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes and by the aforementioned scenes that are more sentimental than realistic. But once Jones’s Ginsburg starts taking on legal impediments to gender equality, she becomes a convincing combination of trepidation and determination.

RBG remains the definitive portrait of a judicial superhero, but On the Basis of Sex complements it by providing an inspirational origin story.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) opens Jan. 10 or 11 at theaters nationwide.