Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are classic comedians, the kind that date back to when your grandparents were film-goers or TV-watchers, and perhaps before. They have the kind of name-recognition that would fit a crowd-pleasing simplistic biopic, but writer Jeff Pope and Director Jon S. Baird have decided to take a unique approach to this new screen portrayal. It ultimately pays off with an enjoyable and lovely comedy-drama.
Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) have been working as screen partners for years, doing several comedic shorts and feature films. In the early 50’s, they are on a UK tour to perform at as many theatres as possible, whilst planning a new film about Robin Hood. As they do this, they reflect upon their relationships with their wives, fame and each other.
The idea of skipping their origin and only looking at the end of these two men’s careers might have seemed like a bad choice if executed poorly, but from the opening scene onwards, Coogan and Reilly display a tangible familiarity and personal friendship that makes us believe that these two have been partners for over a decade. Though Coogan and Reilly are known for being comedians, they both show that they are great character/dramatic actors as well. I personally think that Reilly is very underrated as a dramatic actor and Coogan is just starting to show that he can be in dramas (though don’t see an awful film like The Dinner for an example of this). Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are also great as their wives, especially given how both put on accents that I have never seen them try out before.
The story that carries these two performances is deliberately low-key and free of large stakes, apart from the simple matter of the men keeping themselves in the public eye. What adds to the story is the great amount of heart, as well as the overall of theme of what celebrities do when they know they are losing their star power. There is some drama, but the film mostly emphasises the respect and trust that Laurel and Hardy shared, as well as how much passion they had for their careers. The result is a story that might not be gripping but is worthy of being told.
The low-stakes approach pays off, as the emotions reach a high point during the touching ending that will get a tear out of any Laurel and Hardy fans. If there are any flaws with the story, it’s that a certain piece of drama does not feel as well incorporated into the narrative as the film wants it to be, with the scene that sets up this point being an awkwardly placed flashback towards the beginning. It brings in a conflict that feels out of place and does not fit with their relationship.
This is a major change of pace for director Jon S. Baird. His previous feature Filth was nasty, bizarre and unpolished. The way he approaches this material is far more understated but also more mature and sensitive. The opening tracking shot is extremely impressive and there are a lot of other well directed sequences. He handles the comedy quite well and even cleverly and naturally incorporates some of the slapstick into real life. It may not be fully cinematic, but it manages to prevent itself from being TV-movie quality.
Stan & Ollie is a sweet and likeable tribute to Laurel and Hardy, with two strong lead performances managing to bring them to life and a good script that tells a simple yet endearing story. This has slipped under the radar for awards season due its status as a British production, but it is worth a watch for many reasons.