Tue, 29 Jan 2019
Stan & Ollie (PG)
Running time 1hr 37min
CAN you tell your Laurel from your Hardy? Given the double act seem like ancient history now, it might surprise modern viewers to learn that Stan and Oliver did not die at the top of their game – by the mid-20th century, the kings of screen comedy were struggling for relevance in a drabber, more cynical world than they had taken on in their ’30s heyday.
A career as long and distinguished as theirs probably requires a miniseries treatment; this biopic is that rarest of things, a modern film which knows its limits, and which is willing to make fireworks with minimal
material. Paradoxically, this actually does much to broaden its appeal and thematic scope – it’s as much a movie about art and friendship as it is a profile of the Way Out West stars. Never losing itself in the glitz of yesteryear, it’s a refreshingly
sobering depiction of fading celebrity, driven by transatlantic comic maestros Steve Coogan (who plays Laurel) and John C Reilly (who plays Hardy).
No holistic document of their illustrious career, Stan & Ollie centres upon the veteran jokesters’ disastrous British tour of 1953, which coincided with the twilight of the music hall as a popular venue. Rather than fleshing out their story, the film’s flashbacks fulfil a strictly expository function, showing the performers as they were prior to their decline – its opening scene sees them carouse about a soundstage in an Edenic ’30s Hollywood. What sticks out in both these segments and in the ‘present-day’ arc which forms the dramatic meat of the picture is Laurel and Hardy’s humility – glamorous and dynamic an act as they were, there’s something pleasantly workmanlike about their demeanour on and off screen, as they deftly navigate a host of crewmen, admirers and meddlesome execs. This only renders their ‘fall’ a more solemn, affecting affair, as the bowler-hatted duo are reduced to anonymity on the streets of a miserable (albeit gorgeously realised) post-war England. Reilly and Coogan capture their civilian lives with the same subtlety and physical meticulousness that makes their theatrical personas so compelling. Their efforts to make the best of the tour are jeopardised by the interventions of their wives (portrayed by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda); devoted as they are to their husbands, it’s clear that both have their doubts as to why the men have kept going this long.
It must not be forgotten that Laurel and Hardy were masters in the art of comedy-by-committee, churning out more than100 movies over the course of their partnership; what elevated these pictures above mere populist fodder was the telekinetic bond they refined together. For all their squabbling here (Stan feels Ollie to have ridden the coattails of his talent; Ollie finds Stan a shade of his former self), some arcane force of nature refuses to let them part ways. We are teased with hints of that very force in scenes of slapstick theatrical japery – though they now find themselves playing to half-empty auditoriums, the aging Laurel and Hardy lack for little of their comic vitality. At the end of the day, these guys loved each other – and Coogan and Reilly love them too.