Stan & Ollie (2018)
The untold story of the world’s greatest comedy act.
This loose biopic from director Jon S. Baird, Filth (2013), is somewhat stylized and constrained, but that’s totally appropriate, given that it’s about the last hurrah of two highly stylized screen comedians, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). It’s a film about friendship and careers in crisis, mediated through almost constant performance: while the laughs keep coming, attention to what’s going on between the lines and under the greasepaint clues us in to the real characters and the real relationship dynamics in play.
It’s 1953 and Laurel and Hardy, the apex of their screen careers long behind them, embark on a live tour of the UK. Laurel has promised Hardy that the tour is simply a prelude to a new film project in England that he’s putting together, but he also harbors lingering resentment for Hardy due to the rotund funnyman not backing him earlier in their careers when he tried to negotiate a better contract for them — dealt with in a lengthy 1937-set prologue and featuring a cameo from Danny Huston, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), as Golden Age producing legend Hal Roach. For his part, Hardy is broke, a result of his habitual gambling, and suffering from a raft of health problems due to his weight. With ticket sales down, it looks like the tour might be over before old grudges even get a chance to scupper it.
Big, blustering Hardy and bumbling beanpole Laurel, to reverse their normal listing for once, are legends of comedy for a reason: they helped popularize gags, forms, and techniques that are still used today. Starting in vaudeville and the very dawn of the American motion picture industry, the two managed to stay popular for decades thanks to their craft, stage work, impeccable timing, and sheer physical brio.
All of that is present here, and it is an absolute pleasure to see Steve Coogan, The Trip to Spain (2017), and John C. Reilly, Step Brothers (2008), work through some of these classic routines and bits (and I’d bet good money it was a pleasure and an honor for them both, too). Stan & Ollie isn’t just brilliantly funny — at times it’s beautifully funny, so impeccable and timeless is the comedy craft on display.
However, by situating their film firmly after the height of their careers, director Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope, Philomena (2013), both dodge the usual formulaic biopic structure and derive maximum pathos from the scenario. It’s one thing to see the duo in full flight in the ’20s and ’30s; it’s quite another to see them rooming in shabby hotels and playing to half-empty auditoria, even though the material is still great.
The script and performances deftly convey the inner workings of the pair. These were two guys who were almost constantly ‘on,’ breezily doing a bit for a hotel clerk when checking in, or working a mild pratfall or bit of physical comedy when they realize they’ve been noticed. When they’re not actually performing, they’re still working — Laurel bounces gag ideas for the mooted movie (a Robin Hood pastiche) off Hardy and workshops the jokes. However, it’s what’s happening in between and behind the gags and one-liners that’s fascinating — Laurel’s steadily growing nervous horror that the wheels are going to come off the tour or the film project at any moment; Hardy’s quiet self-effacement at the state of his health and his finances, and the obvious succor the two take from their comfortable, well-rehearsed interplay.
When performances and meaningful pauses won’t carry the cause completely, the wives turn up for our two protagonists to air their grievances to, with Shirley Henderson, Trainspotting (1996), playing the sharp, caustic Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda, Midnight in Paris (2011), as Stan’s pretentious, icy Russian wife, Ida, each of whom love their husbands but are exasperated by them. Arianda and Henderson are smartly not short-changed by the script, each given room to breathe and develop fully realized characters, and their presence both gives us a few different angles on the central duo and is good value in and of itself. As glib theatrical agent Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) remarks at one point, we get ‘two double acts for the price of one,’ and he’s not wrong — watching Ida and Lucille fire barbs at each other is a riot.
Still, as funny as it is, Stan & Ollie’s real triumph is in its portrayal of a relationship that straddles both friendship and professional partnership, in all its nuance, complexity and odd comfort. Coogan and Reilly never quite look and sound exactly like the real historical figures they’re portraying (although heavily made-up Reilly comes close visually, his distinctive voice gives the game away) they certainly feel like them, doubtless bringing their own writing and performing experiences to bear on the professional and personal dynamic being explored. These characters are guys who have known each other for decades, who have worn their rough edges away with the friction of close companionship over the years. You can feel every laugh, every jibe, hard tour, rough day, argument, fight, falling out, and reconciliation they’ve shared — it’s a wonderfully layered and intricate on-screen dynamic. And while each actor here is great individually, they are fittingly better in combo; it’s hard to imagine either Coogan or Reilly generating a better performance opposite anyone else — the ineffable alchemy is the thing.
Stan & Ollie is a quiet miracle — I say quiet because it’s the sort of film that is almost certain to fly under a lot of people’s radars, which is a shame, because it feels like one of those rare films only a total sociopath could dislike (and now, thanks to Rotten Tomatoes, we have a handy watchlist of film critics who may very well be serial killers in between free screenings — goodo). This is a warmly funny, closely observed film that manages to be emotional but not maudlin, serving as both a tribute to and portrait of two absolute masters of screen comedy. It won’t change your life, but it will markedly improve your day — which is, by and large, the fundamental aim of the artform.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson