Stan & Ollie, 2018.
Directed by Jon S. Baird.
Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones, Susy Kane, Stewart Alexander, and Joseph Balderrama.
Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.
Known more as a unit bookended by their surnames, the apparent reason director Jon S. Baird has titled his Laurel and Hardy biopic as Stan & Ollie is simple; this is an analysis of their rocky but ultimately loving friendship beyond being a world-renowned double act performance, and an unwavering sentimental one at that, but considering some of the tidbits given to us during the end credits factoids, this is a rare case where such melodramatic showmanship could be argued as justifiable.
Dropping us right into 1930s Hollywood (the film begins with an impressive tracking shot following Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy through bustling and colorful production lots wonderfully evoking the era, all the way to a meeting with their agent), the eponymous duo are in the spotlight, having appeared in over 50 movies. However, a problem still remains, and like most problems in the world, it involves money, but more specifically, worth. Oliver Hardy is a fairly happy-go-lucky guy (played here brilliantly by John C. Reilly even if the extensive makeup and costume design are somewhat distracting), while Stan Laurel (the vastly underrated British actor Steve Coogan) is frustrated at the lightweight offers they are receiving in comparison to other recognizable names in show business. Stan is also a bit hotheaded, meaning that it doesn’t take long for a debate to quickly transition into something more disastrous for the dynamic pairing; Stan is fired while Oliver is kept on (the studio owns his contract) and paired with another performer, a decision he begrudgingly accepts out of the unquestionable kindness in his heart along with an unwillingness to upset anyone.
The film picks things up 16 years later; interest in the Laurel and Hardy comedy routine (which, if for some reason you don’t know, and shame on you if you don’t, is centered on masterful slapstick humor, singing, and as the two were some of the only stars to make it in both silent films and talkies, impeccable line timing) is waning. Stan and Ollie appear to be getting along as they prepare for a post-war Britain stage tour, but it’s obvious that the fallout from their initial separation has not been fully resolved, and even if you don’t know your history behind the iconic performers, it’s clear that the cracks will further tear apart. Oliver’s health is failing, Stan is unsuccessfully trying to get the pair to write and star in a Robin Hood parody, but despite all of their shortcomings, once they start taking on more and more publicity and acting out famous gags on stage, suddenly audiences regain their infatuation.
At a stop in London, their wives (played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) join in on the fun, but more importantly, it’s the women that encourage the men to confront the elephant in the room, along with Stan and Ollie’s own individual issues. Ollie doesn’t just have a bad knee, he is also frequently throwing away money betting on horses and is a slight alcoholic, while Stan stubbornly can’t get over the fact that his partner went ahead and did some honest work without him. These women may seem catty and argumentative upon first impressions, but in reality, they are just pushing the men into the inevitable confrontation that they have to eventually tackle. Stan’s wife Ida definitely is a stuck-up and washed up Hollywood actress of former glory, but there’s no doubt that she does understand and value what Stan and Ollie have; it’s a friendship that goes beyond the simple definition of best friends.
Some of the best moments in Stan & Ollie involve the two interacting as normal people would, only for the conversation to organically evolve into their humorous antics. These fleeting moments are phenomenal, and more of what the film should have been instead of diving headfirst into clichés and melodrama. Regardless, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are two incredibly talented actors with increasingly diverse range, elevating saccharine material into something more compelling than eye-roll inducing. Such an approach to the story also does admittedly feel fitting factoring in the comedic and lighthearted warmth to the friendship.
It’s a movie about classical Hollywood types grounded in presentation reminiscent of that age; the script and direction aren’t anything fancy, but the talent in front of the camera more often than not trick you into believing you are watching Stan and Ollie/Laurel and Hardy. That is until the camera moves in closer on Ollie, as again, even the most effective makeup can occasionally look ridiculous. Thankfully, Stan & Ollie is a film that benefits from silliness; they carried their act with them wherever they went. It’s not a revolutionary biopic or anything truly remarkable, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me smile for 90 minutes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com