Inspired by A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours, Stan and Ollie sounds like a safe bet – legendary comedians, talented leads, a decent budget – but with no sex, violence, or swearing, it feels oddly revolutionary. It’s certainly a change of gear from director Jon S. Baird’s last effort: an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s savagely misanthropic Filth.
For the uninitiated, Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were a Hollywood double act of the 1920s-40s: one large, one lean; one American, one English; one proud and pugnacious, the other downtrodden and dippy. We meet them on the set of Way Out West in LA, 1937. There’s a great shot of them sitting with their backs to us, their faces reflected in dressing room mirrors, doubled but divided. As they kvetch about their wives, their finances, and that rotter Chaplin, we follow them, Hail, Caesar!-style, around the backlot to the set, where filming begins. Yet something’s about to break forever.
Next we skip forward to 1953 as the pair reunite for a doomed-seeming UK tour. Manager Bernard Delfont (a super-slippery Rufus Jones) has new acts to concentrate on (including Norman Wisdom), the theatres are half-empty and their long-suffering wives are about to join them. Still, Hardy protests, “We’re getting older but we’re not done yet.” Simply staged and beautifully played by Coogan and Reilly, the routines are both funny and ever-so-slightly past their sell-by date.
We’d happily spend the whole 97 minutes watching them mugging through the double-doors sketch or singing Trail of the Lonesome Pine in disarming harmony, but things have clearly changed. When they drop a heavy trunk down the railway station stairs (a nod to The Music Box), there’s a new pathos because they literally can’t carry it back up again. At this point, viewers would be forgiven for worrying that it might all slip into quaint inconsequence, but Coogan plays Laurel with sweet, rheumy-eyed desperation while Reilly, rocking a great fat suit, is the picture of genial gluttony.
As their wives, Shirley Henderson (Mrs. Hardy) and Nina Arianda (Mrs. Laurel) more than hold their own. It is, as Delfont puts it, “two double acts for the price of one.” Despite their flaws, Stan and Ollie need each other. When they argue, it’s quietly heartbreaking. When they make up, with Stan getting into bed to help keep his sick friend warm, it’s lovely. When it’s all over, instead of recriminations, there’s only recalibration. “It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it, Stan?” says Hardy. No arguments here.
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- Release date: December 28, 2018 (US)/January 11, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: PG (US)/U (UK)
- Running time: 97 mins