STAN & OLLIE
This sweet, sad film is about a little-known final chapter in the lives of comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In 1952, at a low point professionally, out of fashion in the United States, their relationship under stress and needing money, they took on a British tour, sometimes to painfully sparse audiences. Jon S Baird’s feature appears fictionally to conflate the tour with the wintry mood of later UK tours when Stan and Ollie’s health and career worries had escalated further. It has a persuasive feel for this twilight of the comedy gods.
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly give great portrayals of Laurel and Hardy. These portraits are detailed, closely observed labours of love, especially as Coogan and Reilly had to nail both the screen personae and also fabricate a subtler, more naturalistic account for the off-stage versions. It is usual for critics to talk about performances going beyond “mere” impersonation, as if impersonation at this level was easy, or had nothing to do with acting. But these are brilliant impersonations, the kind that can only be achieved by exceptionally intelligent actors; the superb technique of both is matched by their obvious love for the originals. My reservation is that there is something occasionally underpowered and genteel in the film’s gentle nostalgic melancholy. IRISH TIMES There are few significant revelations. Though Stan & Ollie trades in much poignancy, it cannot be classed with those operatically miserable TV films about comics such as Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams. The comedy is as gentle as the original films. The sentimental turns are worked ruthlessly. Nothing much happens that you don’t expect to happen.
Yet it works like a dream. The two lead roles could hardly be better cast. Neither Coogan nor Reilly manages to put light years between the performers’ onscreen personae and the actors’ real lives, but the lack of distance serves to hammer home a truth about the double act. These were not stupid people. Hardy was not a pompous ass. Laurel was not a cowardly cry baby. But they teased little bits of themselves into the versions they presented on screen.
Film historians still argue about how tolerant each was of the other, but this warm film ultimately settles for a turbulent, stubborn affection.
We are helped to that conclusion by excellent support from the wives. Shirley Henderson lets her worries leak out in acidic remarks as Lucille Hardy. Nina Arianda deserves to achieve full breakout with her hilarious, scene-stealing turn as Ida Kitaeva Laurel. Get this woman a major comic lead right away. VULTURE This is too sunny a production to linger too long in the dark corners; even Laurel’s alcoholism is treated with a light touch when it comes up. Nevertheless, it still finds its way to some kind of profundity about the nature of long-term working relationships, something a little more complicated than the mere idea that the show must go on (which it must, and does – hence the sweat).
At one point their wives, Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), join up with them, and I was delighted to realise that tucked away in this production were two of the better depictions of protagonists’ wives I’ve seen at the movies in recent years. Arianda and Henderson are both great, but they also have an interesting, somewhat spiky, but ultimately sympathetic relationship with each other, which plays out in numerous scenes while the two wait around for their famous photo-popping husbands.
Accordingly, the film’s darkest moment arrives in the postscript subtitle, right before the credits roll, when we learn how the workaholic Laurel spent his final years. There’s a moment during their big London altercation when Ollie calls Stan, who was never not coming up with bits, “an empty man”. In the midst of all the slapstick and PR gags and general good-natured pandering, it’s a shot that hurts.
Nothing is more well worn, among theatrical tropes, than the pathos of the faded clown. If the fading is to hit home, though, you need to remember the glory that blazed before, and what’s at stake in Stan & Ollie is not how loudly purists will object to its inaccuracies but how many Laurel and Hardy fans, even of the impure kind, still exist, and whether any new ones will arise as a result. In addition, Stan and Ollie were, by all accounts, decent folk, industrious in their craft, courteous to their supporters, and especially appealing to children, who relished the revelation that adults could be idiots, too. So, where’s the mystery?
“You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me,” Ollie says to his partner, at one point, yet the complaint doesn’t really ring true. If it means anything, it means simply that both of them were pros. That is why their pairing, more fusion than double act, has endured as a byword for togetherness.
Even if you’ve never seen a minute of their movies, and even though the two men spend most of those movies squabbling and getting on each other’s nerves, you sense that Stan and Ollie wouldn’t have it any other way. They swelter in the summer of their discontent.
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in Stan & Ollie.