This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.
There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.
John C Reilly plays Ollie, trapped in a fat suit, but nevertheless conveying the confusion and sadness of a man clinging on to his last chance of fame, and the comedy partner who gives him the gags he needs to win over each night’s audience. It’s a fine, even heartrending performance, but this is Coogan’s movie. The poignancy of Stan Laurel, a man with his best days behind him, but driven at all hours by a obsession with gag-making, is the culmination of many of his best characters, from the fame-hungry Alan Partridge to his own namesake in The Trip. His mania for for jokes will get him and his partner through these dark days, but what happens when the double-act eventually has to split. On tour, Ollie’s health fails, inevitably, prompting another crisis, just when it looks like they were on the up-and-up.
For me, a little Laurel and Hardy goes a long way, and I approached this film with trepidation. But it’s a thing of subdued beauty, a mediation on growing old and the power of friendship. And this is a real friendship, almost a lifeline, even if it was born of a professional partnership, an inspired wheeze courtesy of producer Hal Roach.
Baird trades endearingly on the nostalgia generated by his famous duo – shooting them in a simple two-shot, in silhouette or zeroing in on those two famous titfers, to remind us of the inspiration for his tale.
What did I like most about this film? Coogan’s jug-eared impersonation for sure. The secondary double-act of Shirley Henderson and Nina Ariana as the duo’s wives is a close call too. But most of all perhaps the magic of that all-pervasive melancholy tone. It means when the two boys skid into a familiar routine or gag in the middle of the straight business of everyday life it takes you unawares, and reminds you of the importance of laughter, or the value of friendship, and just how funny these two mismatched clowns could be.
- Stan & Ollie is released nationwide on 11 January 2019.
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