Laurel and Hardy truly were two of the greatest comedy performers ever to grace the big screen. So it’s surprising how long it has taken to see their true-life tale bought to life on said-screen, especially considering the goldmine of behind-the-scenes stories with which to draw upon. At last though, we have just such a film, one that goes to greater depths then one would have expected.
Stan & Ollie begins with a wonderful single tracking shot that introduces the pair on the set of arguably their best film, 1937’s Way Out West. From the off, we are invited to see the contrast between performer and character, with much of the dialogue and action providing an insight into the pair’s more complex, fractious relationship. Fast forward ten years, and things have clearly soured, as the two reunite in a dingy Inn to embark on the start of a nationwide theatre tour across Britain in the hope of rekindling their ailing careers.
Of course, as is apparent, the tour did not go quite as planned. Jeff Pope’s screenplay delves deep under the skins of both Stan and Oliver (or ‘Babe’, as he is affectionately known), exploring the characters and bringing to the forefront their insecurities, frustrations and inner-demons. Stan is an overworked perfectionist desperately seeking financing for another film he hopes will reignite the pairing’s screen career. Ollie is a meek gambling addict afflicted with failing health. Worse still, there is an awkward unspoken tension between the two, one that rears itself throughout the tour as frustrations begin to rise.
The script is clever in its telling – in many ways a role reversal of the relationship between the two screen characters, Stan is portrayed as the dominant figure within the partnership, whilst poor Ollie fills the more subservient sidekick role. All this is further exploited for the sake of good drama, the inevitable sense of failure and diminishing fame a constant theme throughout.
Jon S. Baird’s direction is fantastic, particularly in the glimpses of the two performers on stage, flawlessly reenacting their more famous skits and routines. So perfectly captured are these moments that it’s easy to remember what made the double-act so widely popular. If there can be any one plaudit thrown to both director and stars, it’s that their collective collaboration reminds us just how great and talented Laurel and Hardy were, whether in person, upon stage or onscreen. The belting final scene is a truly uplifting emotional kicker that brings a tear to the eye, a masterful bittersweet moment captured with the grandeur and iconism such a key moment demands.
From the moment their casting was announced, it was obvious that Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly would exceed expectations as the famous twosome. Both performances are a startling transformation, the two actors becoming almost indistinguishable from the subjects they are playing. Coogan brings a real air of exhaustive sadness to his role as Stan, a constant comedian despite the obvious distaste for his current circumstances. Where at times Stan teeters precariously on the edge of unsympathetic, Coogan’s charming portrayal keeps the character just about on the right level.
Reilly, meanwhile, cuts a clownish but vulnerable figure under a transformative make-up work, his later portrayal of Babe’s frailty a particularly emotional and honest turn that evokes real heartbreaking sadness. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda complete the cast as Stan and Ollie’s partners, Lucille and Ida respectively, with the script giving both some of the funniest lines and meatier scenes -Arianda is especially delightful to watch as Stan’s cutting, blunt-forced wife Ida.
As much a tribute to the two icons as it is a probing examination of their eventual decline in popularity, the film balances the more rose-tinted aspects of its narrative with the stark nature of the inevitable heartbreak delicately. The audience knows this won’t be a jolly knees-up affair, but Pope’s script and Baird’s direction never favors one aspect over the other, resulting in a film that is well-measured, complex, clever and poignant. The comedy complements the sadder moments nicely, with no uncomfortable tonal shifts – instead, we are eased into the more melancholy nature of the story, which makes the later scenes all the more investing.
Combining astonishing, almost metamorphic performances with a lighthearted yet powerful script and confident, polished direction, Stan & Ollie serves not only as an emotional and enlightening biopic, but equally as an insightful and hilarious reminder of Laurel and Hardy’s success and talent, epitomized by the painstakingly realised reconstructions of their best routines. It’s another fine mess in the best possible way.
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones Director: Jon S. Baird Writer: Jeff Pope Released By: Entertainment One Certificate: 12 Duration: 97 mins Release Date: 11th January 2019