Hollywood in the 1920s through to the 1960s was full of renowned comedy acts. It was a Golden Age of talent, fresh out of vaudeville, with the likes of Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, and The Three Stooges dominating the silver screen. And although all of the aforementioned legends occupy a place in the pantheon of comedy, no act is more iconic than Laurel and Hardy… ie, that fat guy and that skinny guy with the funny bowler hats.
Generations have been raised on their comedy and to this day their image famously brands all kinds of merchandise and trinkets. I grew up with a porcelain statue of them in my house (used to hang hats ‘n things) and knew who they were long before I ever saw their films. In today’s age of fast-streamed media and video-hosting platforms it’s hard to comprehend the genius of their particular brand of comedy, and yet it is so ingrained into modern comedy that proof of their legacy is abundantly clear when you scratch beneath the surface of contemporary pop-culture.
It has been 63 years since Laurel and Hardy retired their act and until now their story had never been told on screen. Stan & Ollie is a new biopic from director John S. Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope (Philomena), and it tells the story of their final years as they enjoy a brief resurgence in popularity while touring across the United Kingdom.
The film begins with a prelude, chronicling their reign in Hollywood, and it depicts a moment that influenced the rest of their career, when Oliver Hardy (the fat one) fulfilled a contractual obligation to star in a film without Stan Lauren. We then move forward sixteen years to find them aged and abandoned by their audience. With a disingenuous booking agent struggling to fill small community theatres for them, the duo agree to perform – unpaid – in a string of public appearances across the country. Soon enough, their celebrity rises and they are selling out gigantic music halls and performing repertoires of their greatest sketches to uproarious applause.
To be honest with you, this is not the film I was expecting, nor what I was hoping for. It isn’t an in-depth exploration of their Hollywood story, and it isn’t interested in recounting their early years. Instead, it is a dramatised account of their final hoorah, settling for sentimentality and a salute to mateship. And you know what? I’m fine with that, because Stan & Ollie is wonderful. It is a sweet, endearing and fanciful film with its heart on its sleeve and nostalgia on its mind.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly star as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, respectively, and serve up two of my favourite performances of the year so far. Their casting is a stroke of genius and the likeness they recapture, both in appearance and in trait, is uncanny. They bare a striking resemblance to their real-life counterparts, with Coogan in particular possessing an incredible appearance. With the slightest twitch at the corner of his mouth, or a cheeky lift of the brow, he embodies the character with eerie perfection, and as the duo dance across the screen, fumbling their way from one gag to the next, the authenticity in Baird’s film is undeniable.
The production design is serviceable as it presents a believable 1950’s Europe, but its containment is evident with budgetary limitations exposed by the lack of depth within the community landscape. When the characters are on the road, their travels are restricted to vehicles, with very little time spent outside. Fortunately, the lives of these men revolved around the stage and when it comes to representing their trade, the screen transforms into vibrant showcases of their craft. It is mesmerising to watch Coogan and Reilly recreate those famous moves, and their chemistry and rapport certainly helps to overshadow the limitations of the production design.
You won’t find an extensive document of Laurel and Hardy’s career in this film, nor will you find any dirt on their characters. But, you WILL find a charming story about two friends whose bond is unbreakable. It celebrates the integrity of their work, and fondly reminds you of the roads that have been paved before us. Oh, and somewhere in this review you will also find a cheeky little sight gag, referencing a moment from the film. Good luck with that.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Stan & Ollie’ opened in US cinemas on December 28, 2018 and arrives in Australian cinemas on February 21.