Stan & Ollie, 2018.
Directed by Jon S. Baird.
Starring John C Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Nina Arianda and Rufus Jones.
In the mid-1950s, and with their glittering Hollywood career behind them, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy embark on a farewell tour of the UK. Everybody thinks they’ve retired, so the ticket sales aren’t great to start with. Hardy’s health is failing and their respective wives – a formidable double act in their own right – are due to arrive ….. Based on a true story.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) started their Hollywood career in the silent era. By the time it drew to a close, they had appeared in over 100 films, including 23 features. The arrival of the talkies was something of a gift to them and the 1930s saw them at their most prolific and successful, with classic shorts like the Oscar-winning The Music Box and Laughing Gravy, as well as features including Sons of the Desert and perhaps their best known of all, Way Out West. But, by the time they embarked on a farewell tour of the UK and Ireland in the mid-50s, their golden days were behind them and everybody thought they’d retired.
This final phase of their career is the focus of Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie, not a bio-pic in the conventional sense of the word, but a portrait of a much lesser known period in their lives and one that faces an uphill challenge. One the one hand, it has to avoid patronising the members of the audience who are familiar with the duo’s films and legendary scenes, but on the other it has to show the relative newcomers why The Boys, as they were affectionately known, were so great and so brilliantly funny. It’s a neat trick if you can do it, although instead of walking a tightrope, Baird has taken the safe route, over-relying on their classics and throwing in little references that only the fans are likely to pick up.
After starting the film in 1937 on the set of Way Out West, it’s fast forward 15 years to a time when Laurel and Hardy had become yesterday’s men, regarded with nostalgic affection but very much replaced in the public’s affection by another act. Abbott and Costello. The temporary nature of fame was taking its toll, but their act still lives on, both in terms of their relationship and how they relate to others. The film eavesdrops on the banter between the two: it’s always initiated by Laurel, who creates the lines and comes close to telling Hardy what to say. And, when they need to charm people, they fall back on their most famous routines and catchphrases. Not that it always works: Laurel’s re-staging of his levitating hat routine for the benefit of a frosty receptionist meets with a stony silence. She’s too young.
The resemblance between the two leads and their characters is truly stunning and extends well beyond the visual. Coogan and Reilly nail the mannerisms and the vocal intonation but they never step into caricature territory. Coogan’s portrayal, in particular, is more than enough to create a double take but, perhaps even more importantly, there isn’t a hint of Norwich’s finest in his performance. The pair have one remarkable pin-dropping moment half way through the film, when a stand-up argument in the middle of a posh reception in The Savoy gets right to the heart of their relationship, both personal and working. It uncovers a simmering anger that’s been festering under the surface for years. And a few more scenes with the same impact wouldn’t have gone amiss.
There’s great support from Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, so oily he would slip through your fingers, while Nina Arianda as Ida, aka Mrs Laurel, and Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, are chalk and cheese and a great double act in their own right. All of it makes for more than enough laughs, but this is ultimately a nostalgic, wistful movie with a broad thread of sadness woven into its narrative. Another fine mess? No. But one that, despite two stellar performances at its core, isn’t always totally on target.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.