I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of us have come across Laurel & Hardy in our lifetime. For me it was my granddad, who would watch the films in fits of hysterics as the duo got into “another fine mess”.
This past week, I got to take the very same granddad who remembers seeing the two of them the first time around to see the biopic of the duo, Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, respectively, as the titular duo.
I am usually cautious in approaching biopics, as sometimes they seem as though they’re just a little bit too in love with their subject matter to convey a worthwhile narrative, but that being said, one of my top films of last year was a biopic, and exploring stories from little-known periods of a famous career can give plenty of drama for the casual cinema fan, and the long-running fans of the person it is immortalising. With that being said, lets look at the Stan & Ollie.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are in the twilight of their careers, with their greatest successes a distant memory. To try and get a new film off the ground they embark on a music hall tour of the UK, which brings to light old grudges and new health problems for the ageing duo, as they try and regain the spotlight.
If there’s one prevailing word I can relate to Stan & Ollie, it’s: nostalgia. It hangs thick over the films many twists and turns, and in many different forms. Nostalgia for old Hollywood, nostalgia for music-hall comedy and nostalgia of a post-war Britain, still recovering from its heavy losses less than a decade earlier.
There’s also a twinge of sadness in the film, in the most unexpected ways, its a sadness of a duo who know their days in the spotlight are numbered, but they push on for the adoration of their fans, all the while knowing that this tour might be what kills them off completely.
As a film, it’s held up wonderfully by its two leads, Steve Coogan gets to show off his more dramatic side, which is often under-used, and John C Reilly continues to be one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. They have the same quality in their performances that Rami Malek brought to Bohemian Rhapsody, you don’t think of them as actors playing real people, rather as the real people themselves, telling their story, and that’s a rare kind of thing to bottle in a film.
The film comes to us from director Jon S. Baird who could not have made a bigger departure from one film to the next, as his previous film was Filth the James McAvoy vehicle, based off the Irvine Welsh book, a tale of alcohol and drug abuse, a million miles away from the inherent sweetness of this film, not that this is a bad thing of course, if anything it shows the directors ability to adapt to the subject matter, and showing a broad wealth of range between the two films can only be the catalyst of a bright future ahead.
It is by no means a flawless film, no matter how charming it may be, a lot of side-characters are heavily stereotyped, especially the wives and concert promoter, the latter of which seems to lack any sort of credible nuance, being the very essence of a typical film concert producer, i.e: will do anything to get the show on, and more importantly his money in the bank.
The wives conform to other stereotypes though, Stan’s wife is practically a cartoon of a Soviet female in some scenes, whereas Hardy’s wife comes across as the nagging wife we’ve seen so many caricatures of over the years. The difference between the two wives and the promoter however, is they gain nuance and subtlety towards the films climax, in a way that doesn’t feel anticlimactic, it’s another feel-good moment in a film full of them.
If I had to pick a favourite thing about the film, I’d look beyond its nostalgia-heavy presentation, its charm and likeable leads, and point towards the films final scene, a lovely pay off of a full films build to show the duos genuine affection towards each other, perfectly encapsulated in one of the pairs most iconic routines.
In conclusion then, Stan & Ollie is a wonderful, feel-good experience, dripping with charm and anchored by two committed lead performances and a capable guiding hand of its director. If you’re seeking a bittersweet film, over-flowing with love and passion, you could do far worse than Stan & Ollie.