Cinema loves a good biopic about itself, so it seemed inevitable that a film would take on the story of Laurel and Hardy, one of the most famous comedy duos in the history of the medium. Contemporaries of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, predecessors of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, and two of the few stars of the silent era to make the successful transition to sound, they are genuine Hollywood legends whose comedy and legacy are still respected to this day. With ‘Stan & Ollie’, director Jon S. Baird (‘Filth’) and screenwriter Jeff Pope (‘Philomena’) choose a specific moment in their relationship to unpack what made this pair such an indelible team. Yet for all their energy and veracity, does the film emulate that, or do we just have yet another standard biopic on our hands?
The film covers their stage tour through the UK in 1953, when Stanley Laurel (Steve Coogan, ‘Ideal Home’) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly, ‘Ralph Breaks The Internet’, ‘The Sisters Brothers’) reunite after years of not working together. Stan sets up the tour as a way of drumming up interest for a film project he’s writing for himself and Ollie as a way of a comeback. With Ollie’s health failing, the pair playing to tiny audiences, no word from their film producer contact and their wives Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson, 'Okja', '24 Hour Party People') and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda, 'Midnight in Paris', ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’) set to arrive soon, they may have a lot more work in front of them than they expected.
As a premise, focusing on this moment in the later years of Lauren and Hardy has potential, offering an opportunity for retrospect and contemplation over their legacies, but while ‘Stan & Ollie’ certainly has a sleepy charm to it, that charm only takes it so far. There’s a polite, well-mannered politeness to the whole film, very similar to the men it depicts, but this results in a film that has almost no texture, tension or rhythm. The clash of the past, present and fear about the future is far too gentle, and while Pope’s screenplay isn’t exactly the most dynamic piece of writing, it certainly has more potential than Baird gives it. The film moves at a considered and consistent pace, more plodding than spritely, and after the rambunctiousness of ‘Filth’, it’s disappointing how unimaginative or un-cinematic Baird’s approach to ‘Stan & Ollie’ is. It’s hard to tell whether the approach is impeded by an insistence on being respectful, or is simply perfunctory, but it causes a dissonance between what the characters say about Laurel and Hardy, and what the film seems to be saying. We hear how beloved and famous they are, but the film seems to have little enthusiasm for actually showing us that rather than just telling us.
Rhythm is really a huge problem with this film, whether it be the languid moments of conflict or drama, or the poorly pitched moments of comedy, both of which are executed with the same energy. Again, it’s unclear why Baird is making these decisions. Is he trying to emulate the rhythms of Lauren and Hardy’s comedy sketches? If so, then why have everything else around them be just as slow, denying those moments of their special comic tension? At every turn, ‘Stan & Ollie’ feels like it’s playing it so safe as to be almost inert, smothering its own potential.
We hear how beloved and famous they are, but the film seems to have little enthusiasm for actually showing us that rather than just telling us.
It’s all the more frustrating when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are as great as they are as Laurel and Hardy. Both of them bring so much warmth, humanity, integrity and melancholy to their performances, whether it be Coogan’s palpable discomfort and unease as Stan, or Ollie’s generosity and patience as Ollie. They fit these roles like tailored suits, able to navigate the complexities of these men as both public and private beings, as men and as performers. In fact, the inadequacies of the film are emphasised in the ease with which Coogan and Reilly are able to move between them, something the film never manages to do. Together they’re a dream team, brimming with chemistry and affection, and the moments where they recreate Lauren and Hardy’s routines are magical (especially in the unexpectedly gorgeous final few minutes, where the film suddenly shows some visual imagination). Shirley Henderson and Nina Ariadna are also wonderful as Lucille and Ida, often as dynamic a comic duo as Coogan and Riley. They move beyond the tired cliché of the beleaguered wives of geniuses we are so used to seeing, discovering their own agency, and establishing terrific relationships with their husbands and themselves. There’s more danger and surprise from Henderson and Ariadna than almost any other aspect of the film.
It’s a pity that ‘Stan & Ollie’ ends up being as lacklustre as it is. The story has potential, the performances are terrific and the subject manner is fascinating. The problem is that the film itself never seems to want to make more of it than what we’re seeing. Few audiences in 2019 know who Laurel and Hardy were other than by name, and the trick is to not only make us care about the men themselves, but why we should care about their place in history. In the hands of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, it’s very clear why we should care, but the film in the hands of director John S. Baird muddies that. Much like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, it’s another biopic where a great (in this case collective) central performance cannot save a film that, in the end, has nothing to say about its subject.