Whilst comedy is subjective, it would be fair to say that slapstick – the simple art of pulling faces and exaggerating movement – is perhaps the most universal of all humour. It’s essentially timeless. Films and performances based on such physical talents seem to transcend time, and are as much beloved now as they always have been. Comedians, specifically double-acts during the time when the film industry began to make waves, managed to hone in on such talents. But not many achieved the success or adoration of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The clumsy, British Laurel always acting the fool to his counterpart the bulging bullyish Hardy. The two bowler-hatted men were superstars of the classic Hollywood era.
Stan & Ollie focuses on the two’s music hall tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland throughout 1953, a tour which would eventually become known as the last time the two worked together before Hardy’s death in 1957. After a few quiet years and an unspoken falling-out where Hardy performed alongside another performer after Laurel was fired from their film company, the two attempt to find funding for their next screen project alongside the tour – a comedy version of Robin Hood. However with the two struggling to fill seats, and Hardy’s health declining they’re soon forced to think about the possibility of putting an end to their career.
Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to set the scene perfectly with a long, sprawling take following the duo as they walk to set in their heyday. Immediately accompanied by the iconic ‘The Cuckoo Song’, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) are a casting made in heaven. Reilly spent four hours a day undergoing makeup for Hardy, and the effect is truly startling. His mannerisms and posture scream authenticity, and whilst Coogan’s Laurel isn’t too much of a match physically it’s his performance that more than makes up for it. Aside from the elongated opening shot, the film’s first half hour seems to take a bit of getting used to. Whilst the look is definitely there, Jeff Pope’s script feels a little clunky in places and the chemistry between the two leads takes a while to develop. As they enter the UK and learn they may not be the superstars they once were, we’re slowly shown the vulnerabilities of the two. And it’s here where the magic seems to start.
“It’s amazing that you two are still going strong. Still using the same old material”.
With small venues and bare seats to their shows, slimy producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) suggests extensive publicity alongside the tour in order to gain recognition. With the extra work piling on and Stan consistently writing up new material alongside the script for their Robin Hood movie, Hardy’s health begins to take a turn and old habits such as gambling seem to raise their ugly head. Stan’s workaholic subplot is expertly handled. There’s barely a moment where the man’s not honing his craft, whether it be in a waiting room and trying to get a laugh from the snooty receptionist or sitting at his typewriter in the hotel rooms. Coogan is ecstatic and natural. There’s a genuine sense of worry behind his eyes that this is what he needs to do to survive, and we can do nothing but believe it. Upon finding out that their last shot at a big-time movie has failed, Laurel refuses to tell Hardy not out of remorse but out of sheer guilt that he’s done wrong to his best friend and creative partner. Pope’s screenplay obviously knows Laurel inside and out, and it’s some of the best character work I’ve seen in quite some time with Coogan rightfully getting the recognition he deserves.
However apart from the fantastic physical performance it often feels as though Reilly has pulled the short straw with Hardy. Aside from a comment or two about his knee acting up, Oliver’s health is never brought up until five minutes before the inciting incident where he collapses by the side of the stage during a public appearance. His gambling habit is dwelled on heavily during the opening, then is reduced to a short sequence and a few lines scattered throughout the rest of the film. Whether it’s true to real life or not I feel like the time spent on the gambling subplot could have been diverted to adding the extra weight needed for Hardy’s deteriorating health. Once their partners Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda), these subplots soon pick up but this is mostly due to Lucille’s incessant need to bring them up every five minutes.
That’s not to say the two are bad characters at all. Henderson’s Lucille is a worrisome flower whose care for her husband knows no bounds, whilst Arianda’s Ida is a Russian dry-witted dancer whose soft-spot for her husband’s buffoonery makes her strangely wholesome. The two spouses share their fair share of comedic moments within the film too, juxtaposing each other and being forced to keep Jones’ Delfont company throughout the tour as the London shows start to sell out.
“When you watch our movies, it was just the two of us. All we had was each other” – Stan Laurel.
The emotional moments are what makes Stan and Ollie stick the landing. Coogan again towers above all else in these scenes. You secretly always hoped that Laurel and Hardy were actually that inseparable in real life and the film smartly addresses the elephant in the career by posing the question – what if a beloved double act weren’t actually friends? Of course, these questions are only sporadic and used to drive along the performances, but if you forgive the cynicism of generic drama biopic routine then the whole ordeal takes on a rather laid back and charming aesthetic. Baird’s direction, particularly during the live performances, offers just enough visual cues to heighten the experience without taking away from the stars of the show. During the brief reenactments of the duo’s popular material, you’re also reminded why the two were so popular in the first place. Skits like the double-door switch and the boiled egg routine are still funny to this day, regardless of limited props or sets. The film’s entire final act takes place exclusively in The Savoy hotel in London, but the scenery is never as important as the relationship between Laurel and Hardy.
Growing up I’m ashamed to say Laurel and Hardy seemed to pass me by. I dabbled in my Chaplin and my Keaton, but I seemed to unfairly miss the duo’s work. Stan and Ollie left me with a smile on my face, one that’s weary to the world. One that acknowledges the cynicism and cruelty within it but chooses to try and make the most of the laughs and the happy moments. Coogan’s Laurel is often forced to sit back and relax by Reilly’s Hardy multiple times throughout the film at the worry he’s letting their friendship pass them by due to focusing on the ‘timeless’ films too much. For a film that’s fairly typical, such a glistening moment of poignancy tends to go a long way. It’s affectionate, warm and doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in its body – exactly like the duo it focuses on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch some Laurel and Hardy.
“I’ll miss this when we’re gone” – Stan Laurel.