Stan & Ollie
Genial showbiz biopic examines aging comics, changing times
Stan & Ollie (2019)
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Cast: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda
In the opening sequence to Stan & Ollie, the new showbiz biopic from Scottish director Jon S. Baird, famed comic actors Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) wander from their dressing room to the set of Way Out West at Hal Roach Studios in 1937. The pair are at the height of their box office fame, and the short backstage journey—all shot in a single take—takes them through the magic of old school Hollywood. They wander past cowboys and script girls, Romans and Teamsters. Backdrops roll by them, fake sunsets frozen in canvas and paint. They talk of business and girls and parties and contracts and gambling debts. At the end of it, a director shouts “Action!” and the two men segue perfectly into one rather famous on-camera dance sequence. It’s a sprightly and beautifully orchestrated sequence, exposing the reality behind the fantasy. Although the film that follows traffics mostly in the conventional biopic realm, it’s a rather wonderful setup for Stan & Ollie’s tight-knit narrative.
The bulk of Stan & Ollie is actually set more than a decade after the heyday of Way Out West. It picks up in 1954 with its protagonists aged and somewhat out of fashion. After an extended separation, the famed duo find themselves stitched back together for a stage tour of England in the postwar era, coasting on their old slapstick fame and trying to secure financing for a new Robin Hood picture they’re hoping to get off the ground. The gap between fantasy and reality is still at play, however. It quickly becomes evident that the producer of the tour has promised more than he can deliver, the venues are shabby, the audiences small, and the return to feature film glory is increasingly unlikely to happen.
Despite its focus on aging stars, fading fame and changing tastes, Stan & Ollie is more bittersweet than sad. It focuses heavily, of course, on the relationship between Misters Laurel and Hardy. The duo were thrown together, more or less at random, by producer Hal Roach and held together by fame. They were never exactly best friends, and their relationship feels, at times, like the most cordial of business arrangements. And yet they worked together for so long, and with such a profound sense of timing, that they still mesh like a well-oiled machine.
Stan is the thoughtful writer, Oliver is the passionate improviser. But there are a few old wounds still floating around. Their moviegoing partnership broke up years ago over contract disputes and studio politics. The breakup was—if not amicable—unflappably polite. As the exhaustive English stage tour grows in popularity—thanks in no small part to the overtime efforts of its aging stars—it starts to wear on the health and emotional well-being of the two men involved. Eventually, with demanding wives in tow and fortunes sagging, our stars arrive at their breaking point.
Stan & Ollie isn’t made of outsized drama. It’s not exactly All About Eve in the pantheon of showbiz pictures. It is a humble, quiet, but quite lovely little music box of a comedy-drama. The fact that it remains so pleasurable from start to finish is due, almost entirely, to the efforts of its stars. American actor Reilly (Boogie Nights, Chicago, Step Brothers) and British funnyman Coogan (24 Hour Party People, The Trip, Alan Partridge) are uncanny in their portrayals. They don’t simply resemble their real-life characters, they’ve studied every movement and mannerism with consummate skill. The pair recreate a number of Laurel and Hardy’s classic comedy bits, and they are impeccable to behold. At times, the film lets slapstick sequences slip into the real lives of its characters. Some may find this hard to swallow, but it’s really just meant as an indication of how “on” the two were, never passing up the opportunity to pull a gag on a hotel clerk or make a joke—even when no one else was watching. Their constant writing and rewriting of the Robin Hood script—a film both are fairly confident will never actually happen—is less a symbol of their optimism, and more an indication of how deeply and sincerely tickled they are with each others’ senses of humor.
In the end Stan & Ollie is a film about passion, about loving what you do so much that you can’t give up on it no matter what happens. There are moments when we the audience—along with the characters—realize that Laurel and Hardy’s brand of silent film-style comedy is outmoded and quaint. But quaint doesn’t just mean old-fashioned. It also implies a level of skill and pleasurability. And in the almost hundred-year-old routines of Laurel and Hardy there remains a genial sense of joy and good humor. In the context of this simple, sweet-natured film, they feel like a calming, nostalgic tonic. There’s a lot of laughter to be found in Stan & Ollie. As well as tear or two. And it’s hard not to imagine that’s all the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy could ask for.