Movie Review: Stan & Ollie.
Stan & Ollie is one of those charming, character led films you didn’t know you needed till you’ve seen it.
Director Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie is a delight. The film is beautifully shot, driven by two powerhouse performances from John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, and tells a compelling story. After seeing Reilly in The Sisters Brothers, I knew I wanted to see more dramatic roles from him. I wasn’t immediately invested in the story of Laurel and Hardy, as I’d never felt the urge to watch many of their classics. Their place in film history was just an abstract fact, divorced from investment in their actual work. Stan & Ollie not only provides an excellent film in its own right, but humanizes its legendary protagonists and shows modern audiences how timeless and vital their work remains.
Stan & Ollie (2018)
At the height of their popularity, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy reach a crossroads. Stan, driven by a desire for more creative control of their films and to achieve the recognition contemporary comedians such as Charlie Chaplin have achieved, gets in a fight with their long-time producer, Hal Roach. Oliver, dogged by debt and the desire to please everyone around him, is reluctant to break their contracts. This results in a brief split between the two inseparable funnymen.
Twenty years later, Stan and Ollie are set to begin a tour of the UK. Still financially vulnerable and unable to make the films they want, they hope to use a successful string of live performances to convince movie studios to make the magnum opus film Stan has worked tirelessly on. Despite a dodgy promoter, Ollie’s increasingly perilous health condition, and a public that may have moved on, the trip becomes a brave last hurrah for the two.
The Finishing Touch.
Baird’s film making is about as good as it gets. Stan & Ollie evokes the period magnificently, but not ostentatiously. It feels organic, complete, and elegant. There are a few scenes where Baird flexes his cinematography muscles: the final sequence of the film at Laurel and Hardy’s last show is gorgeous and inventive in its blending of modern techniques with golden era sensibilities. Mostly Baird shows a naturalist’s eye for compelling scenes. The camera doesn’t force the drama or comedy, but is always perfectly ready to catch a beautiful tableau or the subtle nuances of Reilly and Coogan’s performances.
Unaccustomed as We Are.
I was unprepared for how funny Stan & Ollie would be. I assumed that the drama of the final days of two aging legends would be the focus, and the film is certainly filled with much that is poignant and moving. It is also damned funny, which was a delight. Coogan and Reilly recreate many classic moments and capture the mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy perfectly. I went from dreading the “quaint” vaudeville slapstick, to smiling, to laughing out loud. Even after nearly a hundred years and much change in comedic tastes, their stuff is still funny. If the film did nothing more, it would have been an effective love letter to a bygone style of entertainment that still has some magic left in it. Fortunately, Coogan and Reilly accomplish so much more in their performances.
Stan & Ollie really humanizes its protagonists, while showing how a lifetime of performing has defined them. After decades of making films, they’ve become their acts in quirky yet charming ways. When a steamer trunk refuses to go up a set of stairs (a nod to a recurring bit in one of their famous shorts) you see the men react as if on camera, right before breaking character and asking each other why they have such a big trunk anyway. As you see people interact with them, they instinctively adopt their film personas, doffing their iconic hats, flipping their ties, and wiggling their fingers like they’ve done a hundred times on screen. It creates a charming atmosphere with a note of bittersweet melancholy. For better or worse, Stan and Ollie will always be Laurel and Hardy first and foremost.
This deep characterization allows the film to be emotionally powerful. Coogan and Reilly are Laurel and Hardy, and also Stan and Ollie. Both sides of their lives are rich and complex. Baird wonderfully moves the narrative focus subtly between the two men so that we experience every nuance. The two actors are themselves magnificent. As the perspectives moved between them, I kept saying “wow, that’s the best performance of the film…no, THAT is the best performance of the film.” They’re great, and bring the two men vividly to life.
Thicker than Water.
Stan & Ollie delivers on every front. It is well crafted and beautifully composed. The film captures its subject with skill. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are fantastic: earnest, funny, complex and engaging. The only fault I can think of is that I wanted more of everything. There are several excellent scenes where we flashback to a young Laurel and Hardy, which I think would have built more appreciation for their body of work. There is also an intriguing fantasy sequence where Ollie envisions the doomed movie he knows they’ll never get to make. I wish they had used that element more often, almost recreating the lost film in absentia. As it stands, Stan & Ollie is a great film, equally adept at making you laugh as making you cry. The story of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour is emotionally powerful and leaves a lasting impression that made me want to delve into the pair’s work with fresh eyes.