Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)
Written by: Jeff Pope
Directed by: Jon S. Baird
Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.
Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.
They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921), though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.
Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.
The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.
As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other — it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).
Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.
The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.
* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities
Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia.
Running Time: 98 mins.
Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
[Laurel] “So will you.”
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