Stan & Ollie
An affectionate tribute to two comedy icons, complete with pitch-perfect performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.
February 21, 2019
Stan & Ollie begins with a glorious shot — an image that's strikingly composed, and that couldn't better encapsulate the film to come. Comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) sit in their shared Hollywood dressing room in 1937, bantering away in their playful, genial manner. Their backs are to the camera but, as they're both perched before individual mirrors, their faces are reflected in lights at either side of the frame. Stan's thinner visage smirks wryly from the mirror in front of the more jovial, sizeable Ollie, and vice versa. Director Jon S. Baird enjoys the affectionate interplay between the two comic stars, and gazes at them just as fondly. Most importantly, the filmmaker visually signifies the enormous presence that his two subjects had in each other's life.
Worlds away from his last movie, the drug-addled Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, Baird returns to comparable moments throughout Stan & Ollie. Just as the eponymous pair were at their professional best when they were together, the film shines brightest when it looks upon the two in tender exchanges. When Stan sits side-by-side with an ailing Ollie in a hotel bed, and when the duo recline on the deck of a ship against a sunset backdrop, Stan & Ollie offers an ode not only to their enduring partnership, but to the pull they felt towards each other. That's the entire picture from start to finish — however there's a particular heart-swelling sensitivity evident in these loving scenes.
After spending its opening minutes on-set during the making of comedy-western Way Out West, Stan & Ollie jumps forward to 1953, when the pair's fame has faded and their double-act has nearly fractured. Reuniting after a rocky parting over contract matters, they embark on a tour of the United Kingdom largely to boost the chances of making their first film in years. But half-empty crowds in second-tier venues await, as does the scheming of an uncaring promoter, bickering between their wives (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda), and more than a decade of unspoken feelings about the way things have panned out. It hardly helps that, as the two ruminate upon what they had and what could've been since, they're continually met with astonishment from ordinary punters who didn't realise they were still alive.
Given cinema's penchant for biopics — half of this year's Oscar acting contenders are nominated for playing real-life figures — it's surprising that Laurel and Hardy's story hasn't graced the silver screen before. Better late than never, obviously, with screenwriter Jeff Pope (also a writer on the Coogan-starring Philomena) penning the filmic equivalent of a warm hug for two of the industry's bona fide icons. There's no escaping Stan & Ollie's kindly, laudatory tone, but it's thoroughly deserved. While the zany vaudeville energy that the duo are known for only comes through in recreations of select routines, Coogan and Reilly put in pitch-perfect performances that capture exactly why their characters had such an impact on comedy as we know it.
Indeed, Stan & Ollie's casting proves a cinematic stroke of genius, of the kind that every film aims for but only a select few manage. It's especially fitting that both Coogan and Reilly have become well-known for their own two-handers in recent times — the former with Rob Brydon, as largely seen in The Trip and its sequels; the latter with Will Ferrell, though last year's Holmes & Watson is best burned from everyone's memories. Experienced hands at bouncing off an on-screen partner, they're so adept at it here that their charming double-act feels like the real thing. Crucially, they sell both the sweetness and melancholy of a life spent tied to another, although the movie's most deeply moving element comes via postscript. When Hardy died, Laurel never performed again, but kept writing new material for them to share.
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