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Classical to a fault, Stan and Ollie is a biopic that in honouring its two legendary central figures – sands off any rough edges.
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play comedy double act Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, classic Hollywood stars. The film kicks off with them in their hay day in 1937. Despite their success, Laurel insists on trying to secure the two more money for the picture Zenobia, leading him to butt heads with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston cameoing). The pair get split up with Hardy forced to continue the film with a new sidekick.
Stan and Ollie then jumps forward to the 1950s, with the two reuniting for a music hall tour of the UK. Both on hard times, the aim is to generate enough enthusiasm for a new Laurel and Hardy film. Throughout the tour, the duo must come to terms with their waning fame and their repressed feelings for each other over their past split.
Reteaming with his Philomena star, writer Jeff Pope finds a great through line in the lives of Laurel and Hardy to depict their strange relationship. The two were paired together by Hollywood producers and made magic happen on screen. That said, their relationship during their days at the top always felt professional, not emotional. It was only after their split did the two realise they loved and needed each other. Jumping between the 1937 and 1950s creates a solid, tight vacuum to explore this bond while also keeping the film just over 90 minutes. It also helps this bromance is brought to life by two leading men who not only embody the iconic personas they are playing but manage to make them feel like real people.
Pope’s script and Coogan and Reilly’s performances really are the driving force behind Stan and Ollie. Yet, there are other elements which further elevate it above the standard biopic. While a typical drama of its sort would sideline its main characters’ wives, here Shirley Henderson as the mousy Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda (always a delight) as the obnoxious Ida Kitaeva Laurel are like there own double act, coming into the film half-way to visit their husbands in London and running away with it thanks to their passive aggressive banter. Between them and Rufus Jones as Laurel and Hardy’s flattering but also conniving manager, the cast is uniformly terrific.
All that said, the movie still succumbs to the problems of prestige pictures, namely workman-like direction. Helmed by Jon S Baird (Filth), the movie has a handful of stylistic tricks. The opening scene set in 1937 is a glorious minutes-long one-take which follows Laurel and Hardy in conversation as they move through a busy studio backlot onto the set of Zenobia. Another beautiful moment is when the sound cuts out at a party as Stan and Ollie have a climactic verbal fight – which descends into some of their trademark physical slapstick.
However, aside from these brief moments, the filmmaking is mostly point and shoot. There are also some clichés such as when Hardy finally coming to a realisation hears in his head lines said previously throughout the film – helping to hammer home a point (filmmakers, stop that). Meanwhile, Baird and Pope have made the decision to have Laurel and Hardy’s comedic personas bleed into their everyday lives – adding in suitcase and hotel bell gags which feel straight out of Way Out West even when the two are off stage. While on paper, one can see how this would work, here it adds an air of unreality feeling at odds with the story of the central duo’s last-ditch attempt to be a success again.
The film’s script constantly is pointing out how far Laurel and Hardy have fallen. Yet, the film’s glossy production design, along with the moments where fiction bleeds into reality, makes everything always look fine. Stan and Ollie never look to in any way be suffering, leading to a strange lack of dramatic tension. Are we meant to feel sympathy because two actors are staying in a hotel without a bellboy or are forced into making some public appearances to promote their work? Boo hoo.
This lack of drama is most evident in the film’s final act where Hardy after having a heart attack is told he won’t be able to perform again. However, last minute he decides to ignore his doctors and step out on the stage with Laurel. The film treats this like the end of The Wrestler, except all we have seen the two do on stage throughout the film is sit down, walk around and do a little jig – nothing too strenuous.
On top of the ‘one last shot’ narrative not quite working, the script takes a big swing on the audience being emotionally invested in the betrayal Laurel feels at being so quickly replaced with another sidekick by Hardy and Roach. While this works slightly better because it gives Coogan some meaty material to sink into, again audiences will be hard pressed to feel wholly sympathetic as it was totally Laurel’s fault.
Coming out during awards season, the contender for trophies Stan and Ollie resembles most closely is Green Book. Both are handsomely mounted if slight period pieces, centring on the chalk and cheese pairing of two men during a time of change (in Stan and Ollie, a transitional period for silent and old Hollywood stars). Each are a fine way to spend a cinema trip but feel too sanitised, too clean to really get under one’s skin.