Hollywood icons Laurel and Hardy are portrayed by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly in Stan & Ollie, a gentle biopic set during the pair’s final years, during an ill-fated tour of the UK.
It had been years since the duo’s heyday. After decades of seminal slapstick hits, including Way Out West and Sons of the Desert, Stan Laurel and Oliver Norvell Hardy found themselves out of demand in an industry where youth and novelty are the goldrush commodities. So they agreed to a theatrical tour of Britain in 1953, performing their skits to appreciative and nostalgic audiences, amid growing concerns about Hardy’s health.
Why, exactly, did director Jon S Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope choose this point in time around which to structure a Laurel and Hardy biopic? Stan & Ollie is a picture of genius in exile, the mostly dismal denoument to one of comedy’s all-time great double acts. There is dramatic potential there, to be sure: to take a pair with such joyful personas and then deconstruct them. To peel back the popular image and reveal a discomforting reality can be a hugely effective device. But Stan & Ollie lacks the conviction or desire to go through with this. In the end it hedges its bets, and aims for a tone of bittersweetness, a sense that despite their torrid circumstances, you can still see the glory days shine through if you squint hard enough.
A film like this can be ruined by the casting alone; it is fortunate, then, that both Reilly and Coogan are mostly successes. Reilly, with what looks like substantial prosthetic enhancements, does a brilliant Hardy impression, nailing the voice and imbuing the character with an affecting mix of exuberance and melancholy. If all Gary Oldman had to do last year to win the Best Actor Oscar was don heavy makeup and approximate a famous figure, Reilly should, by rights, have this year’s sewn up already.
Coogan is perhaps less convincing as Laurel, although not bad. His is the harder job, after all, trying to play up to the familiar on-screen Laurel image, the naïf, while simultaneously embodying the smart, hardworking man behind the scenes. Coogan can play blustering idiots with relish but he cannot convey true Stan Laurel simplicity, and his eyes, throughout, convey only a quiet and defeated sadness. This proves a problem for the both of them: they can mimic the Way Out West dance with technical synchronicity, but they never re-capture the lightness, the sheer joy of the original. Their wives, played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, are well-acted and not as underwritten as you might expect, although both are played by actresses seemingly decades younger than their real-life counterparts.
The screenplay is heavy-handed but occasionally effective. An event where Laurel and Hardy arrive in Ireland – taken, unlike much of the film, directly from real life – is moving and triumphant in a way the rest of the film never really manages to be. A flawed but welcome reminder of their legacy that never quite does it justice, Stan & Ollie will send most fans running back to the timeless originals.
Image: Aimee Spinks