STAN & OLLIE Photo | Entertainment One
There is plenty to admire in the sedate but moving biopic “Stan and Ollie,” a bittersweet journey through the last days of the legendary comedic duo Laurel and Hardy. After making more than 100 successful films together, both silent and talking, time has taken its toll on their relationship and they are old news. In 1953, they reunite for a live tour of their most beloved material to try to drum up interest to finance another film together.
They also drum up past conflicts and resentments, primarily over their dueling natures. In a flashback to their heyday in 1937, we see that Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) wanted greater creative control and more money, and resented Oliver Hardy’s (John C. Reilly) placating nature that kept him from trying to leverage their contracts. Tidbits about their failed romances and marriages are dangled but not explored. We even see Hardy making one movie with someone else, a concept that becomes unthinkable to the audience as the film progresses.
As they attempt their music hall tour, ticket sales and morale are low. Their smarmy agent suggests some publicity stunts to beef up interest, as most people they meet can’t believe they are still around to perform. They bring their onscreen antics to supposedly real situations, which is fun to watch and also becomes the central theme of the film.
When they first reunite and check into a hotel far beneath their former standards, they fall into a routine over the desk bell tacitly, without discussing it beforehand, and the girl at the desk is more puzzled than delighted. The pair do create genuine pathos from their predicament, which really questions if there is such a thing as their real personalities, compared to what they created. Their lives are a series of impressions of themselves.
And of course the film itself is a series of impressions. It is these actors’ recreations of those actors’ finest moments that are the heart of “Stan and Ollie.” It depends on how deeply your appreciation of seeing an uncannily accurate portrayal of these two runs. Coogan in particular disappears into the role of Laurel, but then, he is a master of impressions, and his voice is likely less familiar to audiences than Reilly’s.
My question is, who is this film for? Die-hard fans will be too distracted over quibbles with accuracy to love it. And if you aren’t a die-hard fan, why would you be interested? I can’t say if this is a generally moving story about old age or friendship outside of an existing interest in the golden age of cinema, because I happen to come from a family with what I have learned is an above-average involvement with Laurel and Hardy.
The two are a moving pair of lifelong friends, with decades of happy and painful memories between them, so to watch them consider their own mortality and what their lives ever meant is sad and interesting. But I don’t know if “Stan and Ollie” boasts a universal appeal. It’s a sweet little film that doesn’t change much from beginning to end; it pretty much asks the same questions the whole time.
If you are interested in Laurel and Hardy, you have to see it, and if you come in as neophyte, maybe you will want to check out some of the original works depicted in this film, such as 1937’s Western spoof “Way Out West,” in which they perform the rightfully iconic soft-shoe dance that is depicted several times in “Stan and Ollie.” We see them filming it for “Way Out West,” then decades later recreate it onstage, sweating buckets and literally near death, but giving the people what they hope they still want.
“Stan and Ollie” is currently available to rent
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