For some reason, I grew up watching a good amount of Laurel and Hardie comedies. Now, this wasn’t as pervasive as Abbott and Castello, but I knew my classic vaudeville double acts pretty well as a young lad. That’s probably not true for most people and I would assume even less so for the generation that came after mine. As the years past, Laurel and Hardie’s comedy drifted away with it, both in terms of being forgotten and in how funny modern audiences would find it. It’s honestly an era of comedy and film that Hollywood seems to ignore despite the fact that they love making movies about themselves.
That’s why I was so incredibly happy that the amazing Stephen Coogan (playing Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (playing Oliver Hardie) were making a movie about them. Finally, a modern audience would learn about some of the greatest slapstick performers to ever grace any screen. Sadly, the film kind of got shoved into the end of the year, avoided all awards buzz despite strong performances, and seems to be hitting theaters with little fanfare. Happily, this is the kind of movie that delivers something a bit different in the realm of biography and turns out something special.
Stan & Ollie
Director: Jon S. Baird
Release Date: December 28, 2018
I’m pretty sure most people don’t know the first thing about the personal lives of Laurel and Hardy so it’s interesting that the film decides to focus mainly on what would become a farewell tour of sorts across post-war Britain. The two men, and best friends, attempting to get anyone to make a movie with them in their older age, struggle through empty theaters and tense moments with each other as their history is explained through story instead of flashback. Hardie is going through health problems as some old wounds from the duo’s past begin to fester in their less successful years. That’s not the point of the movie, however. The film is less plot-driven and more a character study of these two men, their incredible talent, and their magical relationship. Yes, there’s some through lines focussing on Hardie’s health and the stress of the tour on their relationship to pull the movie along, but mostly we watch two great actors inhabit two legends.
Actually, the film’s attempts to muster up some tension might be the movie’s biggest drawback. It often feels forced, like the producers demanded some more drama to be injected into the entire thing. I don’t know the actual history of this last tour but it feels like the filmmakers took plenty of artistic licenses to ratchet things up. A fight near the end that takes place during a post-show party is a perfect example of one of the moments that feels less than true. Even if all these moments were true, its the filmmaker’s job to make them feel like they are and the movie fails at that. For most folks, these moments might even make the film work, but for me, I felt like the characters themselves sold the film enough so pushing things into greater levels of conflict just for show rubbed the wrong way.
The performances should be enough for anyone though. Reilly and Coogan are fantastic together, playing off each other’s strengths and pulling out subtly comedic turns that change tone on a dime. Reilly is great in a fat suit as he captures the excess and fun of Oliver Hardie, but its really Coogan who steal the show. His Stan Laurel is at times fragile yet brilliant as he tries to hold together a team that is fraying at the seams for a variety of reason. Coogan should be shortlisted for his performance, honestly, but the awards season seems to have past the film over for whatever reason and its a shame. The rest of the cast is there but hardly important enough to mention as the two actors take up nearly all the screen time. The relationship these two actors build between their characters is stunning, especially given the fact that they’re asked to do it in the context of a film that’s starting at the end.
The film also functions as an homage to the art of comedy itself. The magical timing that these two men had with one another is portrayed with a sort of respect and reverence that you might not expect from a dramatic director like Jon S. Baird but is probably brought to the forefront because he is one. There are moments in this movie where you’re laughing hard at some of the most basic comedic gags ever and its thanks to this respect. One of the duo’s most popular bits was a funny dance sequence that probably wouldn’t get a laugh out of a three-year-old in this day and age, and yet when its performed on screen in the film you find yourself laughing at it both for its comic genius and the respect you have for the performers.
It is really all this background stuff that makes the movie work, not the plotline. It’s structure as a final farewell film fits the movie to a tee but it can also mean that the story isn’t that engaging. That can lead to a movie that feels like nothing is happening for chunks of its runtime and this is where you might hit a differing of opinion. For those who love the history, characters, and comedy, the film is an easy watch. However, for those who are there for a story, it becomes less so. The movie wants to talk about the relationship, not the show and that can be slow.
Stan & Ollie can get lost in itself and its characters and that makes it a bit of a different kind of biographical film. I’d contend then when it is lost it is at its best and that its flaws really shine through when it’s trying to get some plot point through. Whatever your take on the style of the film there is one thing that’s undeniable: Coogan delivers one of the best performances of the year.