Stan & Ollie is a modest but beautifully crafted and performed film that captures the pathos of the ageing showbiz celebrity whose time has passed, and charts the joys, sorrows and difficulties of maintaining an enduring relationship through thick and thin.
Anyone of my vintage will get instantly that the title of this film, Stan & Ollie, refers to the great Hollywood comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. I remember as a young kid in the 60s seeing some of their shorts at the Busselton drive-in. Their time was over by then, but they were still popular – I recall hearty chuckles echoing around the packed drive-in.
Although their movies continued to show up on 70s TV, their gentle slapstick-dominant style of comedy dated quickly. By the 80s, they had just about sunk without trace, but I always recalled them with fondness. It was not so much their routines and gags that endeared them to me, but their look and personalities. Weedy little fast-blinking Laurel and big fat Ollie with his funny, genial face and bowler hat were just so likeable. And they complemented each other perfectly.
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are inspired casting choices as Stan and Ollie respectively. They are not only dead-ringers in appearance (helped along by some expert prosthetic make-up in the case of Reilly), but have the duo’s gentle slapstick comedy and dance routines down to a tee. Most importantly, though, they are entirely believable as the men behind the act. And that is the main focus here.
The film opens in 1937, with Laurel and Hardy at the peak of their careers. They are due to go on set to shoot a scene of their classic feature Way Out West, but the men behind the characters are not in comedy mode. Slipping in and (mostly) out of their characters, they complain about debts and divorce settlements as they make their way to the set. Further, Laurel’s contract is due for renewal and he is determined to renegotiate better pay and conditions with their producer, Hal Roach (Danny Huston), but Ollie doesn’t want to rock the boat and is reluctant to support him. Thus the scene is set for an exploration of the sometimes troubled relationship of these two people who fit so well as showbiz professionals, yet are very different out of character.
The setting switches to England, 1953, where the bulk of the film takes place. Laurel and Hardy are in the final stages of their careers. The new comedy kings are Abbot and Costello and local product Norman Wisdom. Hoping to whip up enough interest to get backing for a final feature, a send-up of Robin Hood, they set out on a series of live theatre dates in small venues in Birmingham and Glasgow, performing routines from their films before small but loyal audiences.
With their agent seemingly always unavailable, their expectations of playing packed houses in London and raising money for the film looking unrealistic, and their wives due to arrive shortly, the boys and their relationship are under big pressure.
Stan continues to work obsessively on the Robin Hood screenplay, never questioning their future as a duo. Unbeknown to him, Ollie is seriously considering an offer to team up with an English comedian. Inevitably, the cracks in their relationship widen. Some cutting and hurtful words pass between them as the viability of their professional partnership is thrown into doubt. When Ollie is found to have serious health problems it appears all is doomed.
Heavy stuff potentially, but these guys are old school and decent, and their rift never becomes ugly, their language never crude. And Scottish director Jon S. Baird, who has obvious affection for his characters, retains a light touch throughout.
Stan and Ollie’s wives (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson – both terrific) calm the waters when they arrive. Indeed, they are an entertaining and often funny double-act in themselves, clashing when loyally supporting their respective husbands, yet coming together as allies when the professional tide takes a turn for the better.
Stan & Ollie is a modest but beautifully crafted and performed film that captures the pathos of the ageing celebrity whose time has passed, and charts the joys, sorrows and difficulties of maintaining an enduring relationship through thick and thin. The latter brings a universality to the film that widens its demographic appeal.
While it takes a while to get going, I can’t imagine anyone not being won over by this charming and heart-warming movie. Watch for the wrap-up text at the end, which takes us through to the end of Stan and Ollie’s lives. There’s a snippet on Laurel that is especially poignant.
Movie Website: https://www.stanandollie.co.uk/
Australian release date: Stan & Ollie in Australian cinemas from 21 Feb 2019
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives