Stan & Ollie (Cert 12)
US/UK (2018) Dir. Jon S. Baird
Hopefully, it shouldn’t need explaining that Stan and Ollie refers to comedy legends Laurel and Hardy, whose official pairing by producer Hal Roach in 1927 for a short film entitled Putting Pants On Philip began a 25 plus year career that made the entire world laugh with their bumbling antics.
In 1953, UK audiences were still enthralled with Stan & Ollie, leading to a tour of our fair isles for a series of live shows recreating some of their most popular routines. But little did audiences know that this would be the last time they or anyone else would ever see them perform in public. Yet, for all the triumphs onstage, things didn’t run as smoothly off stage as this film recalls.
As a child of the late 70’s/80’s, Laurel & Hardy on weekday afternoons after school was must see TV. That these 20-minute slapstick escapades were 50 years old and its stars had long passed away was irrelevant, we still enjoyed them. I’m now an old git yet still carry a torch for Stan and Ollie, but my perspective is much different now, having learned more about them as the people behind the clumsy oafs who made us laugh on TV.
If there were one famous movie act it would be very difficult to make a credible bio-pic about in terms of actor aesthetic and staying true to their characters, it would be Laurel & Hardy. Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope bravely took on this audacious task, but did so knowing a full telling of their lives and careers would be impossible to condense into two hours, so instead they focus on the very end of their prolific and profitable partnership.
Equally imposing is the challenge for the actors to look and portray the two icons with conviction and verisimilitude, with Baird’s first choices accepting – Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Ollie. The big question is how they measure up in literally stepping into the huge shoes such iconic and peerless beloved figures. Amazingly well is the answer.
The film actually opens in 1937 during the making of the classic Way Out West. Stan and Ollie are in the midst of a dispute with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over their contracts with Stan’s due to expire but Ollie’s with time left to run. Stan has an offer from another studio for more money and he hopes greater creative freedom, but Roach refuses to let Ollie go.
When Stan points out you can’t have Hardy without Laurel, Roach calls Stan’s bluff and Ollie next film Zenobia in 1939 has former silent comedian Harry Langdon as his co-star. The story then jumps to 1953 and The Boys, as they were affectionately known, arrive in Newcastle to begin a UK tour being promoted by Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), which sees them staying in tiny hotels and playing to near empty halls.
Stan and Ollie continue with the tour because they are hoping a British producer will see their London show and finance their next film, a spoof on Robin Hood, except he never returns Stan’s calls. Delfont slyly coaxes The Boys into taking part in publicity stunts which sees the fortunes reverse ahead of the London shows, but the arrival of their wives Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) sparks a bitter argument which they may not recover from.
From the onset, it is clear this film is aimed at the Laurel & Hardy devotees, from the use of Hardy’s nickname “Babe” to not bothering to introduce half of the people they interact with because fans will know them anyway. But this doesn’t exclude the fair-weather fans or neophytes from being charmed by the warm and respectful relationship Stan and Ollie had with each other and their audience.
Because this relationship was so genuinely loving, thus lacking in juicy drama opposed to say Abbott and Costello, Jeff Pope’s script invents some, and this is where the hardcore fans will be heading for their keyboards to tell the world why this is wrong. I won’t list them here as it require spoiling the second half but suffice to say, events have been embellished to accommodate this while others simply didn’t happen.
Ordinarily, this would ruin the enjoyment of the film for the fandom but in a similar way to Bohemian Rhapsody the good most assuredly outweighs the bad. Baird has been honest in not portraying Stan and Ollie as angels, making sure to note they both had wed multiple time, as well as Ollie’s gambling problems and Stan’s eye for the ladies. Stan was also the workaholic of the duo as the ideas man and Ollie usually needed the money so it is was win-win.
Elsewhere Delfont is portrayed as bit of a chancer leeching off Stan and Ollie’s reputation which wasn’t true, like the depiction of Roach as a hostile tyrant which is a gross exaggeration of the rift between him and Stan. The wives are also presented in a slightly Shrewish manner but also provide much entertainment here as a double act in their own right through two enigmatic performances from Henderson and Arianda.
I was personally more impressed by Reilly who really caught the mannerisms, the voice, and the presence of Ollie bolstered by a believable physical transformation. Coogan also mimics Stan incredibly well, but unfortunately I kept expecting him to lapse into Alan Partridge, as he can’t completely loose that distinct timbre to his voice. Both however are pitch perfect in their timing when recreating the routines.
Stan & Ollie is an affectionate tribute to two comedy legends, perhaps taking a few too many liberties for dramatic licence purposes but meets the challenge head on to do their legacy justice. Even in this proxy form, the gags and routines are still funny and the characters endearing. For 98 minutes you’ll believe The Boys have returned to the stage for a well deserved encore.
Rating – ****
Man In Black