Stan & Ollie is a bittersweet biographical comedy drama from Jon S. Baird, which explores the behind-the-scenes relationship of real-life comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy. Inspired by the book Laurel and Hardy – the British Tours by A.J. Marriot and adapted by Jeff Pope, the film grapples with their careers in post-war Britain. Embarking on what becomes their final tour, the world-famous comedy duo find that winning audiences and filling seats has become more difficult. Attempting to reignite their film career and convince people that they haven’t retired, we get a curious look at what it takes to keep a friendship and creative partnership alive.
Starting in their heyday in 1937, when millions of people around the world were enjoying the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, we discover the duo at the pinnacle of their careers trying to navigate the pitfalls of fame and fortune. However, Stan & Ollie is mostly set in the United Kingdom some 16 years later following studio turmoil and creative differences. While you may know the iconic comedians from their black-and-white films, cartoons and shorts, getting to grips with the reality of competing with the likes of Norman Wisdom as well as Abbott and Costello, makes this a charming albeit melancholic journey on the cusp of Hollywood’s golden age.
John S. Baird is best known for directing Filth, a dark and twisted drama starring James McAvoy in one of his most intense performances to date. We find him at the helm of a much more subtle film, reminiscent of the equally-weighted French biographical comedy drama, Chocolat. Both are essentially about the rise-and-fall of famous clown comedy acts, dealing with the struggles of performers, behind-the-scenes turmoil and creative differences.
“Forget it Stan, this is London-town…”
While Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are probably not the first people you would think of to fill the shoes of such a singular comedy duo, they demonstrate that they are more than up to the task. Coogan has slimmed down for the role, able to convincingly play Stan Laurel across a 16 year spectrum. While he isn’t able to truly capture the lightheaded idiocy of the screen character, he more than makes up for it with a grounded and thoughtful character performance. Together with John C. Reilly, the two have good chemistry and a definite sense of history. Reilly has adopted a lifelike silhouette for Hardy, which must have required hours in the make-up chair. While the prosthetic makeover takes up a great deal of the face, he is still able to convey a rich and charming performance, capturing much of the beloved character’s spirit.
Having seen Laurel and Hardy in their heydays, the co-leads seem a bit miscast at first in terms of likeness. However, post-film clips reveal that the older Laurel and Hardy actually bear a much stronger resemblance to how they’re portrayed in Stan & Ollie. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda play their wives Lucille and Ida respectively, serving as a secondary comedy duo in their own right. While the film’s focus is on Stan and Ollie’s relationship, there are elements that make it seem similar to the film Hitchcock, uncovering the influence of their real-life partners.
Stan & Ollie probably won’t appeal to you as much if you haven’t been exposed to their black-and-white comedy films or cartoons. While constantly amusing, placing much of their comedy dynamic into their actual lives and playing off their antics and fame, it intermingles comedy and drama so seamlessly that the iconic theatre masks are indistinguishable at times. This tone certainly adds to the realism, allowing the actors to demonstrate their versatility, yet downplays both aspects. Possibly too subtle for its own good, it results in a much more reflective and thoughtful piece. Imbuing nostalgia from the time, delving into the post-war depression and even tapping into the plight of the single tear clown, it’s a well-paced, enjoyable, moving and fine production.
The bottom line: Bittersweet