One of the main questions that a few critics I talked with after the screening of Stan & Ollie had was, ‘How do you think this is going to play to people that don’t know or care about Laurel & Hardy?’. A fair question, given that their legacy in the comedy hall of fame is unquestionable, but they peddled a specific absurdist vaudeville routine designed heavily around tightly-timed slapstick which could potentially feel rather dated to today’s audiences. All broad and silly and campy in a very pantomime-y way which is, admittedly, showing its age a bit. But the smartest thing that Stan & Ollie does is work that meta-question into the very bones of the film itself. Director John S. Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) have made a Laurel & Hardy biopic that, yeah, is quite lightweight and happily devoted to biopic conventions, but also serves as a delightful reminder of how utterly inspired the old routines were, how magnetic performances and impeccable timing can make dulled genius shine again, and the joys of slapstick comedy.
To wit, following a short prologue in 1937 when the duo were the most beloved double-act in the world, our focus is on 1953 when Stanley Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) reunite for a tour of the United Kingdom after an acrimonious decade and a half. The pair haven’t lost a step with one another – still workshopping new routines and bits together with effortless chemistry, still goading each other into doing classic bits for the public, and Stan is still affectionately referring to Ollie as “babe” – but the world at large has mostly moved on. They can’t get the financing for films anymore, much of the public believe they hung it up years ago, and their big tour, which they’ve embarked on for both the money and in the hopes that they can ride its popularity into funding a Laurel & Hardy Meet Robin Hood movie Stan’s been working on, is playing to half-empty mid-sized venues seemingly beneath their iconic statuses.
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So, the film’s narrative is all about Stan & Ollie becoming comfortable with the idea of being a legacy act, and the film on a meta-level kind of works like that of a legacy act, trotting out spot-on recreations of iconic Laurel & Hardy skits like the bus station double doors, the hat exchanges, and the Way Out West dance with the conforting zest of hearing an old favourite being played again for the first time in years. Several of these occur through clips of the duo performing their stage show, of course, but others still are worked into the non-stage parts of the story such as the bell routine or Stan playing with his hat or the duo pushing a very large and very heavy suitcase up several flights of stairs. It’s befitting a duo who were almost always ‘on’ every time they were around each other, always willing to bust out a routine to cheer up a member of the public, always brainstorming new material, always winding each other up, so that the lines between their screen-and-stage selves and their private selves effectively became non-existent.
Because the story of Laurel & Hardy is a love story. Two talented comedians paired up by chance due to a studio executive thinking their styles would mesh, and the resulting connection, shared respect, and admiration from that pairing being stronger than most romantic relationships. Like most romantic relationships, it can be marred by personal betrayal and their own individual vices – Hardy made a picture without Laurel when the latter was fired after trying to fairly renegotiate their contracts, Laurel’s lying to Hardy about the funding for their Robin Hood film, and the pair have alcohol and gambling addictions that Laurel is kicking better than Hardy – but they always find their way back to each other in the end. Coogan and Reilly might not strike up that kind of chemistry since it’s near-enough impossible to do so, but they do approximate something close to it which is the best one could have hoped for, and that’s with Reilly being afflicted with some hilariously terrible (and honestly needless) prosthetic work. Stan & Ollie is stolen outright, though, by the surprise lightning-in-a-bottle comic duo of Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their often-bickering wives, Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel. The pair’s crack comic timing, note-perfect line deliveries, and the fire/oil personalities of their characters produce bigger and more frequent guffaws than almost the entire rest of the movie combined, whilst the screenplay otherwise avoids sexist cliche by having them genuinely wanting the best for their husbands instead of being controlling harpies breaking up the band.
I’m not going to lie and pretend that Stan & Ollie is some kind of enduring masterpiece that I or you will want to see again and again. It is, after all, emotionally simplistic and surface-level deep, even the film’s examination of how the entertainment industry uses and discards stars like a slaughterhouse does cattle is limited to some brief dialogue about how Laurel & Hardy make pittance with no ownership rights of their work and a shot of Laurel looking pensively at a poster for Abbot & Costello Go to Mars. A crowdpleaser is what Stan & Ollie is, an unashamed one at that, and I have always said that I have no problems with shallow crowdpleasers so long as the notes are played skillfully enough. Films like these are popular for a reason, after all, and it’s that warm, fuzzy feeling they provide, which Stan & Ollie does in abundance. This is a sweet, sincere little trifle with a lot of laughs and a lot of heart which succeeds at its modest aims with aplomb. And on a personal note, after the fortnight of this Festival, this was exactly the kind of film I needed to close out my time here with. Something bright, sweet, that sent me to my train with a spring in my step.