‘[It’s presented in] a really fun light while simultaneously holding the darkness visibly at bay’
Stan & Ollie, 2019
Directed by: Jon S. Baird
Written by: Jeff Pope
Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Stan & Ollie is a biographical comedy-drama about the legendary duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan, Holmes & Watson) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly, Holmes & Watson). The film takes place in two time zones, covering 1937, when the pair were at the top of their game and renegotiating their contracts, and 16 years later where they tour England and Ireland in a bid to raise money and awareness of an upcoming film. During both times it focuses on the relationship between the duo, the highs and the lows, and how their careers came to an end.
Going in I knew very little about Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy (I hadn’t seen much of Laurel & Hardy and knew even less about their personal lives), but I feel the film did a good enough job in explaining their characters and the dynamics of their working relationship quite well, which I appreciated. I also found it quite amusing how this became the second film of 2019 I’d seen featuring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly yet both films were dramatically different in acting and screenwriting; they must have been confused from day -to-day having to give such poor performances in Holmes & Watson to then having to give solid performances here.
The film doesn’t spend much time in 1937, choosing to focus on the major points (how Laurel was fired for wanting more money, how Hardy chose to remain with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and how Hardy went on to make a new film with a new partner, however, subsequently reading up on Laurel and Hardy it presents a few inaccuracies. Laurel, in real life, would return to Hal Roach and make a couple more films before they both signed a new contract (which was affected by war-time), but the film makes out as if Hardy betrayed Laurel with Zenobia, the film with a new partner, and it was a bitterness that was never resolved in the 16-year gap. This played out in the film as an argument ensues in 1953 between Laurel and Hardy in which Laurel berates him for taking on the role in Zenobia, but it never explains why this matter wasn’t resolved sooner. It seems implausible for such an iconic duo to wait 16-years before having an argument about it (even more implausible as they actually continued to work together in the 16-year gap). It also tries to make light of Hardy’s constant marriages, joking about them as he proposes to his third wife. By 1937 Laurel had also been twice-divorced and had a common-law marriage end. Laurel would subsequently end up married four-times to Hardy’s three making the jokes seem rather bizarre, especially as Hardy gladly accepts the jokes without making a rebuttal in the film.
Slight inaccuracies aside (the director’s allowed some creative licence, after all), the film follows a really nice path. Laurel’s work-ethic is shown nicely and Hardy’s health (which was deteriorating quickly) was superbly done. It also beautifully showed two men trying to get along despite a huge black cloud hanging over them, which, until their argument, never gets brought up. It is also a beautiful story of two old veterans defying the odds and making the public love them once again. Their initial shows in England are poorly attended, helped by their rather lacklustre manager Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). In a true underdog story, though, they work hard and manage to rally crowds to fill up stadiums, briefly bringing back the glory days of their partnership. It’s such a feel-good set of scenes that it marries so well with the undertone of hatred that exists in their partnership.
Going back to Hardy’s health, though, I must give special praise to the team who helped with Reilly’s appearance. There’s a dance scene later on and the sweat gradually gets worse and I was so invested in the scene (wishing that the dance scene ended well, but all-the-while fearing what may happen). It’s also helped by Reilly’s performance as you can almost feel his pain in some scenes as he moves. Overall, the whole acting performances were really well done (although I didn’t personally love Nina Arianda’s performance as Ida Laurel, but that could have been helped with a better script as her character just came across as generic).
A fun look at two of the most influential comedy duos, Stan & Ollie presents the film in a really fun light while simultaneously holding the darkness visibly at bay. Their comeback tour was well executed, from the bingo halls to sold-out venues, despite the poor efforts from their tour manager, and a great story with the movie, a take on Robin Hood, they wanted to shoot. The performances are excellent and the make-up and costume design looked visually impressive, especially with Hardy’s appearance towards the end. A few minor issues (notably with the facts they either chose to emit or those that they massaged in a new light), but certainly an entertaining film which does a good job at highlighting the careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy even to someone such as myself whose knowledge was less-than-stellar going in.
Personal: * * * Acting: * * * * Writing: * * * Presentation: * * * *
Overall Rating: * * * ½