Stan & Ollie
11th January 2019 (UK)
Laurel and Hardy, the world's most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song - a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.
Jon S. Baird
John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson
Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy were perhaps the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. At their height of popularity during the late 1920s to the mid-1940s they were unequivocal superstars, packing out cinemas not just in the UK & America, but all over the globe. Their creative skits and undeniable chemistry had them appear in over 100 films together, making them household names and an essential part of film and comedic history. Despite their particular brand of silly and simple slapstick being arguably redundant in today’s world, Laurel & Hardy’s names, faces, and films seemed to have survived times cruel hand much more favourably than other comedy teams of the time. Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers are individually fantastic, but it’s Laurel & Hardy that seem to reign kings in the hearts and minds of people on the whole. So it’s quite surprising that they’ve yet to be explored in films outside documentaries.
Enter Jon S. Baird’s (Filth, Cass) sweet and sentimental new film about friendship Stan & Ollie. The movie chronicles the duo’s final stage tour in the UK & Ireland during 1953; a time in which their popularity was starting to wane and their relationship faced challenges. Stan struggles to get the next Laurel & Hardy picture off the ground whilst Ollie’s health begins to deteriorate, and once old feuds are unearthed it threatens the continuation of the tour as well as their relationship.
There are a great many things to admire in Stan & Ollie. Least of all is the performances. Sentimentality is a hard thing to capture without a large roll of the eyes, but with Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief) as Stan and John C. Reilly (Kong: Skull Island, Wreck It Ralph) as Ollie they do it effortlessly with endearing performances that are works of great imitation and charm. It’s a testament to them and director Jon S. Baird that the film would still function fantastically even if it wasn’t about the greatest comedy duo of all time. The film manages to pierce through the intimidating facade of their legendary status gently, letting these ever famous icons just be regular people.
Stan & Ollie begins with a wonderfully impressive long take as the two “walk-&-talk” through Hal Roach studios in 1937, discussing their future plans to own their own films as well as getting a fair deal from their stingy studio boss. Credit must be given to the direction here as the production is brilliantly staged. In this single shot, the major conflicts of the film are set up, Stan and Ollie’s relationship is established and the films relaxed tone is found. All with glowing visuals and a pleasing score included, it’s as perfect an opening as one could hope for, and one in which all aspects of the production really shine.
I’ve mentioned the films gentle tone and it’s certainly one of the films greatest strengths. But it also can be perceived as the films biggest weakness too. Whilst I personally have no complaints about the film, I have to admit that its comfortable tone could only stimulate me so far. I was never challenged or amazed, and I never felt any sort of cinematic euphoria that the best films give you. But I don’t believe Stan & Ollie ever aims for such lofty goals. For what it is, it’s about as good as it gets.
As Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones: The Foreigner) jokingly quips in a scene, there are “Two double-acts for the price of one” in the film, referring to the argumentive spouses of Laurel & Hardy, Ida & Lucille, who are wonderfully played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda respectively. The ladies offer more than just comic relief (which is ironic in a film featuring Laurel & Hardy) however, by being an extension of the film’s themes of friendship as well as deepening the dynamic between the comedy duo. The scenes with all four actors on screen sizzle as they all bicker lovingly back and forth, again adding another layer of weight to the story.
If you know your Laurel & Hardy you’re sure to recognise many homages to famous gags throughout the film, but you’ll also be treated to some of their stage routines that have been recreated from the little information available from eyewitnesses. The Double Door routine is a particularly genius but simple gag that perfectly captures why these two men were so great. Again credit must be given to Coogan and Reilly for essentially creating this scene from scratch with only vague descriptions to help. Yet they sell it superbly.
The same praise can be given to the films curtain call, which is truly touching and damn near impossible to endure without a lump appearing in your throat at the very least. It leaves you with a bittersweet feeling that is ultimately overruled by a tidal wave of warmth. Dare I say… Uplifting? You’re welcome Entertainment One, you can use that as a DVD quote.
Coogan and Reilly are terrific
Sentimentality done right
A film about friendship as well as a biopic
Gentleness mutes the film's power somewhat.