‘Stan and Ollie’ Breaks Out The Tiny Showbiz Violins
I went into Stan and Ollie knowing about as much as almost anyone does about Laurel and Hardy. They were a famous comedy duo from the 1920s, one was fat and one thin, and they did sketches and songs to roaring approval from crowds. If expect to learn much more than that from this film, you’ll be disappointed.
Stan and Ollie follows Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) on a revival tour of sorts throughout the U.K. We see a brief glimpse of the pair at the height of their fame, but we quickly jump 16 years to the 1950s. Now they’re swimming near the bottom of the showbiz pool with a sleazy tour manager, staying in seedy motels, and playing small theaters.
The film smartly focuses on a small slice of the duo’s lives, something more biopics should do. But maybe they didn’t choose the most interesting slice. Comedy has changed in the intervening 60-plus years, and no matter how many times you show me a crowd screaming with laughter watching an old sketch, I won’t be convinced to laugh along. This movie features a LOT of scenes like that, which one would expect. It plays a little dull.
STAN AND OLLIE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Jon S. Baird
Written by: Jeff Pope
Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda
Running time: 97 min.
The old sketches retain some charm, of course, but they lack the bust-a-gut humor they once had. The film also has an overly dramatic score that creates a very weird tone. The sinister background music makes it seem like someone is about to be murdered, but the main concern is “Oh no! Will these men be able to sell enough tickets for this tour?” Public appearances to generate interest are treated as shameful instead of commonplace. When the biggest worry is filling seats, that’s not a tragedy.
Stan and Ollie contains a sad bit of rejection, when Stan attempts to meet directly with a movie producer about a Laurel and Hardy version of Robin Hood. The producer coldly turns him down, and it feels wistful, but I couldn’t bring myself to care that much. Laurel and Hardy made 120 movies.
Their partnership breaks apart as old grudges resurface, but there’s very little drama in this bloodless feud. That’s fine–not every story needs over-the-top drama– but the film tries to make a banquest out of a simple meal. Laurel feels bitter that Hardy made a movie without him, and Hardy feels bitter that Laurel tried to negotiate their contract. It’s a bummer, but it’s not the cinematic thriller for which the score seems written.
Bright spots in Stan and Ollie include the performer’s wives, who almost function as their own double act. Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) is hilarious as Stan’s tough Russian wife, and her refusal to sit next to the sleazy tour manager at every opportunity is great comedy. She and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) have wonderful chemistry as two women forced to endure each other because of circumstance.
Reilly and Coogan give excellent performances. They portray a genuine and sweet friendship between Laurel and Hardy. But the movie simply lacks any real interest. Performers lose favor with the public all the time. Studios shelve movies more often than they make them. In 2019, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for a 1930s comedy duo trying for one last shot at glory.