Stan & Ollie
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
The onscreen duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of the most popular comedy acts from the 1920s until the 1940s. In 1953, the pair did a tour of the United Kingdom in an effort to possibly reignite their faded star. The biopic Stan & Ollie takes place during the course of the tour as they discover how much they are loved and how they truly feel about each other. Unfortunately, it never really drums up a lot of emotion. The story itself is thin and predictable. The only things pulling it along are the two lead performances. Luckily, those are very good, making the movie mildly amusing, if ultimately forgettable.
The story follows Laurel and Hardy as they perform their shows and discuss the movie they plan to make after the tour is over. Stan & Ollie (93 minutes, without the end credits) is a love letter to its subjects. However, it is not particularly deep. It explores them as performers, but gives little insight into them as people. There is not much about their non-professional lives. That is frustrating because it makes a lot of what happens feel irrelevant. Many of those negatives are offset by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles.
Coogan’s Stan Laurel is the brains of the team. He is a hard worker, constantly rewriting the act to try to make it funnier. He carries resentment with him toward Ollie, though Coogan does not make it seem like anger. More like disappointment. He is a guy who is always on, except for when he is alone with his wife. Coogan makes this charming instead of irritating. Eventually, the lack of depth hurts him. Stan’s motivations (besides money) are a little vague. I liked him despite being unable to completely understand him.
John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as Oliver Hardy, the heart of the team. He likes being an entertainer. It is work, but he does not take it personally. Reilly is sympathetic while also being exasperating. He is so energetic onstage (his facial expressions seem to earn them a lot of their laughs), yet offstage he does not appear to be as driven. The only people who can get him going are his wife and Stan. Reilly is so good he overcomes the flaws of the movie and makes it worth watching. His arc may be wanting, but he certainly gives it his all.
The tone of Stan & Ollie is weirdly uneven. Sometimes it is straight drama; other times it is light comedy. The offstage comedy does not really fit, even though Coogan and Reilly have enjoyable chemistry together. The moments of Laurel and Hardy style slapstick in their personal lives generally comes off as pretty forced. But the movie never fully mines the drama, either. Most of it just sits there.
Regardless, I ended up enjoying it for stretches thanks to the performances (also including Shirley Henderson, worried and caring as Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda, strong and loving as Ida Kitaeva Laurel) as well as the general pleasantness of the entire production. It is heavy with nostalgia, which only goes so far. Fans of Laurel and Hardy should definitely check it out. In spite of my complaints, I recommend it anyway to see John C. Reilly, one of the best actors working today, in another great performance as he transforms himself into a comedy icon.
3 out of 5
John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy
Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel
Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy
Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel
Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont
Danny Huston as Hal Roach
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Written by Jeff Pope