Reviewed by Freda Cooper
Comedians have notoriously unfunny private lives, so Jon S Baird’s Stan And Ollie faces an uphill task right from the get-go. It’s multiplied by the fact that Messrs Laurel and Hardy were at their peak some 80 years ago, which means the film has to walk something of a tightrope. On the one hand, avoiding patronising members of the audience who are familiar with the duo’s films and legendary scenes, but on the other showing newcomers why they were so great and what made them funny. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.
In the end, the film errs on the side of safety, over-relying on their classics and throwing in little references that only the fans are likely to pick up. But this isn’t a bio-pic in the customary sense. The film starts off in 1937, when Laurel and Hardy were at their peak, making what was to become one of their biggest hits, Way Out West. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) has ambitions to break away from producer Hal Roach and his studio and it’s already causing friction between him and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly). Fast forward 15 years and everybody thinks they’ve retired but, instead, they’re in the UK, embarking on a tour organised by impresario Bernard Delfont while they wait for a new film to get the go-ahead. The box office takings aren’t great, Hardy’s health is failing and their wives are about to arrive …..
For the majority of the film, Laurel and Hardy are yesterday’s men to moviegoers, well and truly replaced in the public’s affection by another double act. Abbott and Costello, who were always their inferiors. This was long before a re-appraisal of their films acknowledged their talents as comedians: instead they were experiencing the pain that goes with the temporary nature of fame. But their act lives on, both in terms of the relationship between the two men and how they relate to others. It infiltrates the banter between Laurel and Hardy, with Laurel always initiating, creating the lines and as good as telling Hardy what to say. And they both fall back on their most famous routines to charm people, which proves especially useful in the downmarket hotels where they’ve been billeted during the tour. Not that it always works: Laurel’s re-staging of his levitating hat routine for the benefit of a frosty receptionist falls on stony ground.
The pre-publicity for Stan And Ollie has already revealed the stunning resemblances between the film’s two lead actors and their characters. It extends beyond the visual: both Coogan and Reilly nail the mannerisms and the vocal intonation yet never fall into the caricature trap. The accuracy of Coogan’s portrayal in particular is more than enough to produce a double take and, even more noticeably, there isn’t a hint of Partridge about his performance. The two have one remarkable, pin-dropping moment about half way through the film. A stand-up argument in the middle of a posh reception in The Savoy gets right to the heart of their relationship, both personal and working, revealing a simmering anger that’s been festering for years. A few more scenes like this wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Providing great support are Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, so slippery he would slip through your hands like water, and Nina Arianda as Ida, Laurel’s hard as nails Russian wife who has a fabulously antagonistic relationship with Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson). All of which makes for more than enough laughs, but this is ultimately a nostalgic, wistful movie with a broad thread of sadness woven into its fabric. As the final film of this year’s London Film Festival, it doesn’t finish the event on a high – not because there’s anything inherently disappointing about the film, but because of its overall tone. It’s a story about having had your day and the temporary nature of fame. And life.
Director: Jon S Baird
Writer: Jeff Pope
Stars: John C Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Rufus Jones, Nina Arianda and Danny Huston.
Stan and Ollie was screened at the London Film Festival on 21 October and is released in the UK on 11 January 2019.