Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Director: Jon S. Baird
Writer: Jeff Pope
‘Iconic’ is a word that gets overused these days but I think it really does apply when talking about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They were a vaudeville double act that peaked in the 1920s and 30s and it’s fair to say that most people my age have probably never seen their slapstick classics Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, never mind know the history of their lives and partnership (I know that I didn’t). And yet everybody knows who they are the same way they know who Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein are. That’s how famous they are and how strongly their legacy endures. The image of the hulking, overweight Hardy and the short, lean Laurel standing side-by-side donning their bowler hats while one leans over to the other to lament “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” is as iconic as that of Charles Foster Kane uttering his dying word or Don Lockwood singing in the rain. If you’ve watched The Simpsons, Monty Python or literally any comedy double act ever, then you’ve seen their legacy. Stan & Ollie is a love letter that pays tribute to the duo with both humour and affection.
When we first meet Laurel and Hardy (played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly respectively, both of them perfect), it’s at the prime of their lives in 1937 when they were the two biggest names in comedy. They are comfortably at the top of their game and are filming what is sure to be another hit movie for them, but Laurel isn’t satisfied with the lack of creative freedom or the pay. He meets with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the man responsible for bringing the two comedians together, and threatens to walk out unless changes are made to the contracts. Hal refuses and Stan leaves for Fox, certain that his partner will join him in solidarity. “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel”, he states defiantly. Cut to sixteen years later and we see that things didn’t work out quite how Stan planned. Ollie stayed with Hal Roach productions, made a movie without Laurel, and the rift that emerged in their partnership has never quite gone away even as they’ve continued to perform together in the years since. Now, as they embark on a UK tour performing their old act in half-empty music halls, they’re both in the autumn years of their lives and it’s becoming ever clearer that they’re not the Hollywood titans they used to be. “I thought you’d retired”, says one clerk at the low-rent inn they’re lodged in and so, it seems, did everyone else.
The tour is modestly successful and the pair appear to be getting on famously, performing bits and trading jabs anywhere and anytime they can and sharing ideas for a new screenplay Laurel is working on. There is however an definite tension between the two old hats that both are determined to leave unspoken. And that’s how it goes until until their wives, Ida Lauren (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), fly out to show their support. The interplay between the four is where the drama really comes out as they talk about old times (Ida is always quick to remind everyone that she was once an actor who worked with Preston Sturges) and allude to the elephants in the rooms that still inspire feelings of hurt, resentment and betrayal after all these years. There’s never a sense that this is conflict for the sake of conflict nor do the wives exist as plot devices to stir the pot. Far from it, Ida and Shirley both prove themselves wholeheartedly devoted to their spouses and, while that does lead to treat each other rather spikily where their husbands are concerned, it turns that they both somewhat sympathise with one another as they both experience and endure the toll that show business takes on marriages. There’s a wonderful irony to the way that the film opens with Stan and Ollie coolly recounting their previous divorces and yet ends up with them in a place where both have faithful, dedicated wives and it’s their own relationship that’s subject to doubt.
It wouldn’t be a Laurel and Hardy picture if it wasn’t funny though and the film delivers on that front as well. Not only is the likeness there, thanks in no small part to the work done by the prosthetics and make up teams, but the timing and body language is there as well. Hardy, who looked like a big, lumbering figure, performed his comedy with the surprising poise and delicacy of a ballet dancer and Reilly gets it exactly right while Coogan brings that same silent comedy star expressiveness that Laurel had right down to the eyebrows. The routines they perform together are not only able to score laughs by being well-acted routines in and off themselves, but also because they are done with the kind of familiarity that comes with two partners who know each others lines and steps inside and out. Greater emotional weight is placed on these routines by the constant way the film blurs the line between Stan and Ollie’s real and comedic personas. As two showbiz legends, the two doubtless feel like there’s an expectation for them to always be ‘on’, which is why they’re always ready to perform skits anytime there’s cameras or a crowd to perform for. Even when they’re alone together, slapstick just inevitably seems to happen as when Stan trips over his suitcase while checking into the hotel or when they accidentally drop a trunk down a flight of stairs at the train station.
When Stan declares that you can’t have Hardy without Laurel, it’s shown to be an ironic statement that ends up spelling their doom. It is also however a statement that this film believes unreservedly. Stan & Ollie is a celebration of two iconic comedians and the immortal comedy they made together. While bittersweet, it is ultimately a feel-good movie which is why it stops short of following through on some of its darker moments, makes light of some of the less flattering aspects of their lives such as Stan’s alcoholism and doesn’t hit on some of the harsher truths that get shared and revealed quite as hard as they could have. Laurel and Hardy themselves were specialists at delivering light-hearted comedy and so perhaps it’s fitting that the film should follow suit, but it also feels a little sterile as a result. It is doubtless a delight to watch and it does all the same succeed in showcasing what exactly made Laurel and Hardy such a great team and the bond that they shared. There were feelings of bitterness and resentment between the pair and working together wasn’t always easy but, when it cam down to it, they respected each other, they loved each other and, above all, they needed each other. There’s a post-script at the end which drives the film’s bittersweet tone home; a revelation about the last few years of Laurel’s life that is both beautiful and tragic. This is a film made with true affection and reverence for the two men that inspired it.